Clever people in Switzerland – “Hideous Progeny,” presented by LiveWire Chicago
(Photo by John W. Sisson Jr Photography.)
Emily Dendinger’s new play, “Hideous Progeny,” attempts to tell a story told many times.
In the summer of 1816, a collective of clever young people (acclaimed and not) gathered in Geneva. Among these people were notorious scoundrel (and poet) Lord Byron, his fellow poet Percy Shelley, Percy’s current flame Mary Godwin (who wasn’t yet his wife), an Italian doctor with literary ambitions, and a crazy girl intent on bedding famous authors. Say what you will about all the elements of a sit-com being in place, from that notorious summer came Mary Shelley’s masterpiece and most famous work, “Frankenstein.”
As a huge nerd for all things Shelley-related, as well as all things “Frankenstein,” of course I had to make the trek to see this production. The Shelley circle are fascinating characters in literary history, as close as rock stars as writers have ever come. Heck, in my opinion, their backstory is more interesting than a lot of the work they produced.
But, this is about the play.
For the most part, I appreciated what I saw.
Director Jessica Hutchinson is a clever, clever woman. Removing accents and setting the show in a stylized modern/Victorian time period are both clear efforts to make the show more accessible to an audience that might not all be intimately familiar with the history involved. However, rather than make the story seem timeless, it’s a bit distracting. (As my friend said after the show “During the second act, the clothes kind of went… Gatsby.”)
Plot-wise, playwright Dendinger knows what she’s up against. Namely, that though these are highly interesting people, how much drama can you create during the span of one week? One of her devices, having a cousin of the maid be accused of the murder of a child, is a nice try, but falls flat when it’s not established as the actual plot. So what if a girl has been accused of murdering a child? Free-love spouting poets are sleeping with woman who aren’t their not-yet wives! (Meanwhile, for those not familiar with “Frankenstein,” the whole maid/child-killer thing is a reference to the character of Justine in the novel, FYI.)
Other attempts to add urgency involve a pregnant Mary wanting to go home to England on a ship that’s departing in four days. (Because Percy is coughing up blood. And because he’s sleeping with Claire. And because Will, her baby, is restless.) However, in the span of those four days there’s a challenge in which everyone has to write a ghost story. Sadly, the actual writing of “Frankenstein” is glossed over. Upset over all the drama, Mary goes out in the rain, and comes back with a chunk of her novel written. That’s it. Tick-tock, the plot moves on. Next!
The show peaks when Lord Byron asks Mary Shelley to come to Italy with him, to leave Shelley and Claire and their love-child behind. While it’s probably not a thing that really happened, as Mary was hopelessly in love with Shelley and devoted to him all their lives, it’s a nice dramatic apex for the show. Neither Shelley nor Byron are great guys, really. However, at least this play’s version of Byron (insufferable and flawed as he is) tells Mary the truth, and seems to admire her.
The cast of this show is lovely, particularly Hilary Williams as Mary Shelley. Rather than Mary being a waif-ish pushover, Williams is an earthy and natural performer, and you want her to be well. The audience roots for Mary, even if at some points you really have to question her life choices. John Taflan may be more young John Turturro than dashing heartthrob, but he’s a Byron you love to hate, which is good. Liking Byron too much would be detrimental to the plot, yet liking him is required. Danielle O’Farrell is clearly relishing the opportunity to play “Crazy Claire,” climbing around the set and up ladders and window seats with ecstatic abandon. Percy Shelley is hardly the hero of this piece, and Tom McGrath makes him as likable as possible. (This Shelley isn’t the sweet, likable, poetic dove he’s often historically noted to be.) There’s a lot of cute chemistry between Pat King as Dr. Polidori, and Madeline Long as the cute little french maid.
Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s set design is gorgeous, and gives the actors tons to play with and on. Hutchinson keeps things moving swiftly and rather effortlessly.
It’s autumn, which to me is prime Shelley season.
If you feel the same, “Hideous Progeny” plays at the DCA Storefront theater downtown for a few more weekends. Check out the show’s site for more info.