Once again, Ensemble for The Romantic Century takes us on a multi-sensory journey into the soul of an artist. As Vincent Van Gogh’s painting (in Van Gogh’s Ear) helped reveal his spirit, Mary Shelly’s seminal creation reflects the author’s psyche. Both shows exhibit quintessential relationships, Vincent’s with his brother Theo, Mary’s, not so much with her lover/husband as with literary child, Frankenstein. The monster is as real and sympathetic here as its creator. Both beings are judged, suffer and struggle towards light.
Playwright/Founder and Artistic Director Eve Wolf integrates influential history. Mary’s life is dramatized in tandem with writing. She often interacts with her “monster.” Symbiotic Romantic music by Liszt, Bach, Schubert, and Busoni are stunningly performed on piano, organ, harpsichord, oboe and vocal. Superb, painterly projection (David Bengali-love the unique play on scale, negatives, and use of shadow) and Set/Costumes (Vanessa James) enriches. Formidably imaginative choreography by actor/dancer Robert Fairchild acts as vertebrae and gut.
Mia Vallet; Paul Wesley
Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin was only months old when her mother died. Four years later, her father wed a neighbor with whom she had a difficult relationship. Privately educated and well taken care of on a material level, the young woman’s attachment to romantic/radical poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley was apparently a coup de foudre. Despite being married, Shelley began a public relationship with Mary. Ostracism and debt followed. When Shelley’s wife committed suicide, the couple married, but reputations had been irreparably blackened. They traveled.
The summer of 1816, Mary, her husband, and stepsister Claire Clairmont visited infamous author/poet Lord Byron and his friend/physician/writer John William Polidori near Geneva. Claire was carrying Byron’s child. One of the group’s games involved each concocting a ghost/horror story which he or she would read/enact in front of the others. Byron and Shelley’s overheard discussion of Darwin may have set wheels turning. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated,” Mary wrote in a diary. Her tale was Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
By the time Shelley drowned off the coast of Tuscany, the young woman had lost three children. She resettled in England with a surviving son. This, her first novel, was published in 1818.
The monster, as manifest by a hypnotic Robert Fairchild, is brought to life by harnessing a vivid electrical storm. (Beverly Emmons’ Lighting Design is a terrific palette.) We watch pain, surprise, confusion; the frustration of trying to control limbs; emerging into an unfamiliar world with no example to emulate. Whiplash. Calling Fairchild physically eloquent doesn’t come near his embodiment of this tortured being. The thespian has become an actor as well as a dancer inhabiting the archetypal role with originality and vigor.
“It was on a dreamy night in November…” Mary (Mia Vallet) writes off to one side. “…his limbs were in proportion as I had selected his features as beautiful…” Shelley (Paul Wesley) continues. This second quote nags at me throughout. Beautiful, then why?!
Mezzo-Soprano Krysty Swann and Robert Fairchild
The newborn slips on pants and a shirt. (This would be more credible if he were imitating someone.) It’s pouring. There’s an enormous moon. Projections merge from surface to surface. Frankenstein ventures out. He flexes, stretches, shivers, lurches, wanders, sleeps. “Holy night…dawn…dreams…” sings mezzo-soprano forest spirit Krysty Swann running her hands just above his supine body like a faith healer. (The powerful vocalist imbues every song with elemental emotion.)
Marveling at a bird, our hero tries to catch it, leaping, whirling, loose of limb, dizzy, exasperated, creating a ballet of youthful hope. Children (Shiv Ajay – who later plays a lifeless body with great skill, Peyton Lusk, Avey Noble) throw stones at him. The creature reacts like the innocent he is. First hurt and puzzled, then unmoored, blindly striking out with horrific, brilliantly visualized consequence. Catching a glimpse of his face in water frightens and appalls its bearer. He watches and listens to a village family longing for acceptance, warmth.
Robert Fairchild, Shiv Ajay, Mia Vallet
Mary intermittently writes letters placing us in time and geography. Godwin (elegant, stern, believable Rocco Sisto) condemns his daughter for the lengthy mourning of her child. Her husband suggests pretentious, complicated revisions on the early work. Mary writes and reads aloud. Her creation learns to speak. He reads aloud and acts out. Contact with people remains unendurable.
If you haven’t read the book or seen one of several films, you may be somewhat confused by the raw end of Frankenstein’s part of the story. Reviewing a synopsis is a good idea. Still, anyone can understand loneliness, rejection, aspiration and despair. This is a banquet of sensation and unyielding emotion.
Robert Fairchild and Mia Vallet
The unfortunate weak links in this otherwise gorgeous effort are Mia Vallet and Paul Wesley. Neither actor has presence; neither moves with grace and bearing of depicted class. Speech doesn’t carry well and is sloppily enunciated. Feeling seems surface. The two have no chemistry and appear to think they stand alone on the stage. This extraordinary evening is, however, well worth attending for SO many other reasons.
Kudos to Bill Toles’ clarity and balance of Sound Design.
Photos by Shirin Tinati
Opening: Robert Fairchild
Ensemble for The Romantic Century presents
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein by Eve Wolf
Choreographed by Robert Fairchild
Directed by Donald T. Sanders
Mezzo-Soprano- Krysty Swann
Oboe-Kemp Jernigan, Piano- Steven Lin, Organ/Harpsichord-Parker Ramsay
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through January 7, 2018
NEXT: Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart- May 17- June 17 2018