“Create your monsters, my love. Give them life.” –Percy Bysshe Shelley to his future wife, Mary
It is one of the greatest openings in the history of cinema. In Bride of Frankenstein, the 1935 sequel to perhaps the most famous horror film of all time, there’s a stormy short prologue featuring three people – author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) with poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Gordon) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon). They praise the success of his 1818 novel, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, and she tells them that there is more to the story. And then we venture into what is rightly considered the most beautiful Frankenstein movie of all time.
I thought of this opening when I saw the premiere of playwright Owen Robertson’s CREATING MONSTERS at the Lab Theater Project in Ybor City. In Bride of Frankenstein, the prologue lasts just over three minutes. With Robertson’s new work, it’s as if he took that scene and added love triangles, incest, miscarriages, fight scenes and stretched it to over three hours with two intermissions. There is a lot going on and yet very little happening at the same time. CREATING MONSTERS is entertaining enough and obviously well-written and heavily researched, but it also gets maddeningly drifting and its structure, if that’s what we want to call it, brings new meaning to the word “mess.”
They call 1816 “the year without a summer”, and that’s when CREATING MONSTERS takes place. We follow Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as she finds her voice as a writer and, ultimately, as a woman. She has an open relationship with Percy, the love of her life who meddles in her writing and actually changes her words without telling her; Mary also has to share it with her hypersexualized half-sister, Claire. At a villa in Switzerland, we meet Lord Byron, the famous Romantic who has his eyes set on both Mary and Percy, and Dr. Polidor (who would go on to create the vampire genre with the vampire), who also covets Mary. All this and Frankenstein too. Sometimes it’s almost crazy…Rumors meets Crimson Peak–but it also reminds me Gothic, the 1986 Ken Russell film which, like CREATING MONSTERS, deals with Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire, Dr. Polidor and the creation of the immortal monster of Mary. Gothic was definitely a psychological horror movie; I’m still trying to figure out exactly what CREATE MONSTERS is.
Robertson’s piece, being new and untried, is still in the process of being found. It has three acts and a whopping eighteen scenes, including two short monologues and one of them so long it could be a one-act play on its own. Fort Act 1 lasts 45 minutes; the twists and turns of Act 2 last almost two hours; and Act 3 wraps it all up with twenty powerful minutes. Obviously, this is done for the purpose of a change of scenery (turning Mary’s house into Lord Byron’s Swiss villa and then back to Mary’s house), but it throws everyone out of whack. The way it’s designed, it becomes structurally unsound, to say the least. When Act 2 ended, it was 10:47 a.m. and several dazed patrons seemed to think the show was over, not knowing there was a final act; I’m glad they came back because it turned out to be the best scene of the band, both in terms of writing and acting. (And they and the entire audience ended up giving the show a standing ovation.)
I have no qualms about working long hours, applauding five hours The ice cream man is coming and seven o’clock Angels in America. But for this show, and for its purposes, perhaps part of the middle section could and should be cut. There are so many repeats, scenes that we feel like we saw a few minutes ago, that you think the title of CREATING MONSTERS should be changed to Create Deja Vu. Some points are so elaborate that they could be the basis of their own drinking game (take a sip of beer every time Lord Byron impatiently rebuffs Claire’s sexual advances, and you’ll get drunk real quick).
My biggest issue in terms of the script is that due to Act 2, Mary’s creation seems like an afterthought; we lose sight of his struggle and salvation as a writer of Frankenstein until Act 3. In my opinion, CREATING MONSTERS is a three-hour chore; it would improve greatly, in my opinion, to two or even two and a half hours.
The acting and directing skyrocket CREATING MONSTERS. Best of all in the cast is Newt Remetta as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Although small in stature, she towers over everything and has the most wonderfully expressive eyes. Like his beloved, Percy, Shaun Memmel sports a wig that makes him look like a Bay City Roller. The last time I saw him on stage he was playing Wykowski in Biloxi Blues, a horny soldier who wanted to work on everything in sight, even the furniture. Percy is also sexually overloaded, but that’s a much different depiction; he’s strong but he holds back his fury, only unleashing his outright anger once. I love the way Memmel and Remetta work together, connecting in a very original relationship. And I love how we’re shown that this man, perhaps the ultimate romantic, still has the Alpha Male chauvinistic need to control his bride-to-be, right down to the punctuation of his writing. It interferes with her artistry and femininity. “How is my voice if you change my story?” Mary pointedly asks him. This is one of many great lines.
Emma Hurlburt plays the naughty, salty, sultry, wide-legged Claire. His diabolical viciousness, his verbal fireworks against Remetta’s Mary, galvanized the audience. My only issue with Hurlburt’s performance is that many of his onstage moves felt unnatural; it was as if they happened because she was asked to move at certain intervals, not by character motivation.
Maurice Parker is full of spicy nastiness as Lord Byron. He captures the flamboyance of Byron, bringing the show to life, but he also sometimes reminds me of Inigo Montoya from The princess to be married. “All you can do is eat and fornicate,” Parker’s Byron told Claire at one point. And then there’s a moment when Byron moves aggressively toward Claire, and he lets out a monstrous growl, sounding a lot like the pained moan of Frankenstein’s monster from the later movies (was that intentional?). Parker is funny at first but then burns out because he seems to be retreading scenes and reactions (again, that’s a problem with the play itself; how many different ways can he reject Claire?) .
Cody Farkas as the fifth cast member brings stuttering to an art form as Dr. Polidori. His performance saved the show because he only jumped on the CREATING MONSTERS train a few days ago and learned all of his lines in such a short time; incidentally, Farkas’ Dr. Polidori garnered some of the biggest laughs from the audience.
There’s a lot of slapping, punching, choking in the show (thanks to Sarah Berland’s fight choreography). It’s a long, exhausting evening, but rarely boring.
Roz Potenza directs admirably; the performances worked with every actor logging on. Pacing issues, which are usually the responsibility of the director, go hand in hand with script issues here. The set design by Owen Robertson worked well in the intimate environment, including splashes of Jackson Pollack on the floor which help give us the “feel” of marble flooring or something similar. Wayne Linderman’s lighting design was appropriate (big lightning) and Jonah Robertson’s sound design was effective (you feel it’s really raining outside). The Mary Kay Cyrus props work, especially a ghastly dog bust that only makes sense halfway through the show.
Caroline Jett’s costumes serve each character well and are mostly era appropriate. My only issue is with Dr. Polidori’s pants, which have a zipper on them, which is an anachronism (zippers weren’t officially invented until 1893, long after the events of CREATING MONSTERS).
Lab Theater Project is a boon to the Tampa Bay area. It’s a small theater company that focuses on new work, and it’s an honor for me to see these plays come to life every chance I get. They’ve been around for seven years and have occupied the space on Henderson for two. They are so important to our area because they give us that Off-Off-Off-Broadway vibe and also remind us of the Storefront Theater in Chicago. If you haven’t had the chance to see their space, then venture to CREATING MONSTERS where you can see the dawn of a new play by a small but mighty theater company in their awe-inspiring surroundings. You will agree that, as small as they are and as random as some of their shows are, they are the cornerstone of our local theater scene.
CREATING MONSTERS by Owen Robertson plays at the Lab Theater Project in Ybor City until 9/11.