The Frankenstein Summer
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 12, 2005
The Frankenstein Summer is actually just a weekend—an eventful one in which budding young writer/sort-of-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft discovers her voice and begins composing the novel that will make her famous. Arguably more famous, in fact, than the two men who were with her that weekend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her lover, and Lord Byron, her (for want of a better word) muse. Playwright Catherine Bush has based her neat romance on actual events that took place in the summer of 1816, at Byron's villa in Geneva, Switzerland, where these three plus Mary's step-sister (and Byron's sometime lover) Claire Clairmont and Byron's physician John Polidori spent a memorable rainy weekend tormenting and inspiring one another, with eventual gratifying results.
By the time this play takes place, Byron, 28, was already celebrated and notorious in England, having completed the first parts of Childe Harold and broken off rather publicly with his wife. Shelley, 24, was at the beginning of his short career; Mary, 19, had no literary credentials whatsoever (except by association). Bush and her director Marc Geller give us a Wildean Byron (played by Geller himself), reveling in his genius, spouting epigrams, and manipulating people for his own amusement—the one exception to this last being Mary, for whom he seems to have genuine affection and, more importantly, respect. He predicts early on that Mary will become a great writer, and by the end of the weekend his faith in her will begin to seem justified.
Abby Royle plays Mary with real intelligence and fortitude, making it clear that she is more than a match for these outsized poets who surround her, and at the same time demonstrating the admirable qualities that seemed to make every available man fall in love with her. Tracey Gilbert is a terrific foil as Claire, more confident than her sister but also more willful—a woman who thinks she needs to resort to so-called feminine guile to control her situation instead of ingenuity or talent. Claire has come to visit Byron very determined to win him back, and even though it's obvious from the outset that she won't succeed, Gilbert gives her a kind of vulnerability that allows us to root for her lost cause.
Brad Malow's Shelley is more shadowy; Malow doesn't bring much of a point of view to his admittedly underwritten character. He exists here mainly for contrast—to Byron's exuberant genius; to Polidori's dull but earnest infatuations (he has a crush on Mary); and to Mary's nascent talents (he is "blocked" at the moment, unable to write anything). Rounding out the company are Brendan McMahon, appropriately hangdog as the unrequited Polidori; and Bill Roulet, who steals every scene he's in as Byron's subversively parental valet, Fletcher.
Production values—Aaron Mastin's elegant set, Dennis Ballard's period costumes, and Stephen Arnold's lighting—are above par for an off-off-Broadway show (though I was bothered by the lack of any discernible light source in the otherwise realistically handsome drawing room setting). I had a good time at this entertaining play, which retells this not-so-well-known episode of literary history with sophistication and wit.