February 16, 2009

Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein: The Actors Speak
by Max Cheney

I am delighted to have my friend Max Cheney, aka The Drunken Severed Head, as a guest blogger. In November of 2008, Max attended a world premiere performance of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein at the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh and subsequently interviewed three of the principals. Here is Max’s review and a condensed version — my editing — of his Q&A sessions.

Written by Shirley R. Barasch, Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein is a new dramatic work intertwining the real lives of Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the rest of the party that gathered at Villa Diodati in 1816 (Where Mary began Frankenstein) with the characters of Mary Shelley’s book. As a first-time novelist, Mary wove many autobiographical details and personal concerns into her enduring story, and Barasch’s musical explores these parallels. The new play imaginatively fuses together the loneliness, personal tragedies and genius of the real people in Mary Shelley's circle with the characters she created.

The musical drama, produced by The Tuesday Musical Club, was thrilling and satisfying. The energetic young actors were well suited to their roles, and all displayed good-to-excellent singing voices. The set designs were first rate and impressive, creatively arranged and lighting large sections to make interiors from exteriors (such as a mansion from a ship) and suggesting settings as diverse as mountains, a court, and the workshop where Victor Frankenstein toils in secret to create life. The costumes were generally outstanding (so many were required that a few pieces were, unsurprisingly, only adequate), and the makeups were impressive (especially the Creature's.)

I was fortunate enough to meet some of the actors and interview them by e-mail. A planned interview with author and composer Shirley Barasch never came to be, due to illness striking Ms. Barasch; at the time of this writing she is still recuperating. She has my best wishes.

Playing Mary Shelley was the actress and soprano Brittany Graham; Justin Zeno played both Percy Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, and the Creature was played by actor J.D. Tully, in makeup by Chris Patrick of The Savini School.

What surprises came to you in playing your characters, or in learning about Mary and Percy Shelley?

Brittany Graham: I was surprised to learn how young Mary was when she began writing Frankenstein. I knew that she was a young women but I had no idea that she was barely 20 years old.

J.D. Tully: I think the biggest surprise came at how inhuman everyone was. Percy was never there for Mary, Claire leached off her, her father chastised her. Byron and the men just used her husband, and all the while she feels like she is so strange for being moral. It was that fact that really helped me see that the creature is not a monster, but a creature in a world where everyone around him had a darkened skewed perception at what people should be.

Justin Zeno: Upon reading the biographical information I was struck by quite a few items. The "free love" of the time which seems to be rampant throughout both the Shelley's lives and their peers. I'm also struck with how supportive Mary was of Percy's "sexual escapades." I recall reading a section that discussed Percy's "pimping" of Mary out to one of his friends. She seems to have loved him so much, she literally did whatever it took to keep his love. Discovering that Mary's half sister Fanny had written a suicide note stating that she was in love with Percy. And Harriet's suicide over Percy. What did this guy have? He reportedly had a high-pitched shrill voice and if you look at pictures he could easily be mistaken for a woman. Growing up with 5 sisters, I think he must have understood women on a greater level. I think they were drawn to his sense of romanticism.

I feel like the Percy portrayed in the show was definitely one that was romanticized by both Mary Shelley and Dr. B (author Shirley Barasch). I don't think I'd particularly like the actual Percy Shelley, however, Mary definitely provided this "angelic" version of Percy we have today when his father died and she was allowed to re-publish his poetry with her forwards about each piece. Obviously, an actual depiction of Percy wouldn't be very romantic or empathetic for an audience, so in this vein, I fell that Dr. B also had to romanticize our beloved poet.

Were there any funny or unusual moments during rehearsals?

Brittany Graham: The funniest moment was when Shirley realized why everyone was chuckling when I would say the line "Ecstasy, where is the ecstasy?" or when Justin would say, "I've tasted ecstasy!" It never occurred to Shirley that ecstasy is the name of a drug. It wasn't until Shirley asked why every one was laughing at that word then some one explained to her why that she realized. She laughed and laughed! We all got such a kick out of that.

J.D. Tully: Every mistake we made or crazy moment, we would blame on too much ecstasy.

Justin Zeno: The ecstasy thing was by far the funniest.

What was it that you most wanted to bring out in the characters that you played? Any emotions or experiences of your character that particularly "clicked" for you?

Brittany Graham: I wanted to bring out Mary's insecurities, not just in herself as a woman during this time period but also in her relationships with Percy, Claire, and her father. Shirley wrote these wonderful lines that would jab at certain characters who had a rocky relationship with Mary. It made it easy for me to create an almost schizophrenic attitude towards the people close to Mary. One minute the show would be so joyous and confident, the next she would be accusative and bitter.

Fortunately, I have a very strong support system with my family and friends so I could not relate to Mary's relational insecurities; however, seeing as we are about the same age, I was able to be myself amidst all of her unfortunate circumstances. I could relate to her occasional "feistiness" as I, myself, can occasionally be a "feisty" one.

J.D. Tully: I really wanted to bring out the compassion and loving nature of the creature, and also the loneliness. What people forget is that the creature has a human brain, and can feel and express human emotions, so I tried to show that he is very much human and longs for the same relationships that other humans have. Having these emotions in the show was not so much a matter of creating them, but rather taking the monster side of the creature really far and then putting him through situations to find the vulnerable human side. I think the one that really clicked the most is that misunderstood loneliness. So many times we just jump to conclusions about other people and forget that they are a person too.

Justin Zeno: In my research, I noted that Percy's obsession with the macabre was extremely strong, and so I really wanted to build on this idea from the first telling of the ghost stories to the point where he starts to see his doppelganger. On that note, Jane Williams (Percy's one-time lover) reportedly also saw Percy's double on the terrace and Percy himself at the same time. Years later, it was discovered that he indeed had a look alike. So who knows...

The sense of romanticism and impetuous love was so great with Percy. He fell in love with people at the drop of the hat. Something I've probably done myself way too many times. I really feel like he was sincere in the moment with people, but he did Mary in particular a great disservice because of it.

What clicked for me? Something that happened very late in the rehearsal process for me, and I give total credit to our choreographer Kiesha Lalama-White for this. The last scene between Percy and Mary… That feeling when someone you love is really angry at you - and all you want is for them to call you back and say it's ok before you say goodbye. That pull. It was an incredibly strong feeling to tap into once Kiesha suggested it. Also, the empathy and pain for Mary with her multiple miscarriages. The great emotional pain it caused for her. Victor to me is MUCH less empathetic — he is proud and wants to know what it feels like to become a "creator." It's the whole Garden of Eden all over again. I'd like to meet Adam so I could punch him in the face - so therefore, I have little empathy for Victor. Although, the moment of realization of what he had done was a great one to play on stage.

J. D., did the costume and makeup affect your acting choices, and if so, how? Did you enjoy the playing the part?

J. D. Tully: OOOOO YEAH!!! The rehearsal practice was spent in bare feet (originally we had the Creature in no shoes since he would have been too big for any pair back then), jeans, and t-shirts. The thing was that we weren't really sure of the dimensions and look of the mask so we had no idea what to rehearse in. It was difficult to work with originally, but then we just took the original blocking and motions and enlarged them to creature size. It was all very difficult, and EXTREMELY draining, but such a joy and enriching experience. If I could do it all again I would in a bolt of lightning.

What was your earliest exposure to the characters of Frankenstein and what was your impressions or reactions?

Brittany Graham: My earliest exposure to the characters in "Frankenstein" was when I saw the 1931 movie version, directed by James Whale. I was very young and easily frightened, so this movie served it's purpose as a horror film. I was indeed very frightened of the creature, who I continued to think was named Frankenstein.

Being so young, I did not understand what Victor Frankenstein had done. I couldn't comprehend the ramifications of taking the ability to create life into your own hands. At the age of 10, I'm sure I didn't give it much thought, but I can imagine I was very confused by the movie.

J.D. Tully: I was first introduced to the characters of Frankenstein through popular culture and then I read the novel in my freshman year of high school. I remember that I liked it a lot, but my chief reaction, being a vampire fanatic, was that it was not Dracula!

Justin Zeno: Well, I always loved Frankenberry cereal! That was probably my earliest exposure. As far as Mary Shelley's Frank, I read it for the first time for this production and adored it. I couldn't put it down really. Amazing how accessible her writing is, especially when you try to read Percy or Byron's writing. She was ahead of her time in so many ways.

Who is the more "sinned against," Victor or the Monster-- and why you feel that way?

Brittany Graham: The Monster. He was done a disservice being created by a man who was unable to provide him with the very things a human needs to survive: food, shelter, and companionship. Victor was able to relish in his accomplishments without thought towards what to do next. The Monster was doomed to walk the Earth without an understanding of who he is and what his purpose is.

J. D. Tully: Creature, hands down, not a question. Victor decides he wants to try and create life, and when he succeeds he realizes it is in appropriate. However, rather than dealing with his problem, he runs away, leaving the new "born" creature to learn the world for himself. Then when the Creature finally finds his father, he is rejected. All the Creature wants is to live, love, and be loved. So when his dream is shattered by his father, I find it understandable that he gets angry and goes a little nuts. Even so, the creature repents in the end and begs for forgiveness from his father, god, and the world. All Victor did was grieve for his own losses. Creature totally wins that one... score for the creature!

Justin Zeno: The monster, of course. Anyone with low self-esteem will tell you. He "didn't ask to be born." And society has always been partial to beauty. Granted, our perception of beauty changes with time - but deformity has never been a crowd pleaser. It's the old brains versus beauty controversy. Obviously beauty wins.

Why do you think Mary Shelly's story and characters have lasted so long?

Brittany Graham: It's a classic! As long as the movie is made available and the novel remains on the eight-grade reading list, the story will last forever. People will always be interested in the things that have yet to be. Perhaps if we do start creating people from the "bare bones and rotting flesh of others", people will lose interest in the Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein".

J. D. Tully: Well they're just so intricate. An upstanding doctor who brings flesh back to life, though completely unthinkable, allows the imagination to wonder what else can happen in the sciences of life. A creature who looks like a monster but is more human than anyone on this earth. You love and hate them all which is always a fun dichotomy.

Some would say that Frankenstein is about the harm science might create blindly, and some that it is humankind's inability to be fully human until it is fully humane. What do you think Shelley's primary theme is? What is she warning us of?

Brittany Graham: Shirley writes it in her script. Mary says, "I want others to know the horrors of science without feeling. The very inhumanity of such doings." Mary is warning us of the consequences of creating "life" without thought towards what is required to sustain that "life". You wouldn't create a plant without supplying water. You wouldn't create an animal without supplying food. Just as you cannot create a healthy, functional human being without supplying companionship, something Victor was unwilling to provide for the Creature; thus, we see the results clearly in Mary's novel.

J.D. Tully: I think it is a combination of both. Shelley is warning us of what happens when we lose our humanity. We become cold and hollow, which allows for all manner of poor choices to be made. Humans must remember that we are humane, or else we are nothing more than monsters.

Justin Zeno: I think she's warning us about ourselves. The potential we EACH have inside to "create" a monster that is greater than ourselves which has the potential to destroy everything we love. I think she's warning us to be satisfied when we find happiness, instead of always wanting more. And of course, she's warning against "playing god," but as I said before - that archetype goes back to Lucifer and Adam and Eve.

Thank you for your interesting answers, Brittany, J.D., and Justin!

And thank you, Max!

Update: Max has posted the complete, unabridged interviews, with additional photos, on his blog, The Drunken Severed Head.

Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein website.

Reviews in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pop City Media.


Max the drunken severed head said...

If you continue to run guest posts by this guy anymore, you may cancel my subscription!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the interviews with the actors. From the perspective of an audience member I thought that the show really conveyed the interplay between the actual events of the lives of Percy and Mary and the events that Mary created in her novel. The singing was amazing and I felt that their was a complex humanity given to Mary, Percy, Victor AND the monster in the portrayals by these three talented actors.

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