Review: Aquila Theatre presents Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ at George Mason University Center for the Arts

New York-based Aquila Theatre has been hailed by The New Yorker for its innovative staging of the classics. Founded in London in 1991, the company has a regular season of productions as well as a major annual national tour.

Aquila Theatre's 'Frankenstein.' Photo by Richard Termine.
Aquila Theatre’s ‘Frankenstein.’ Photo by Richard Termine.

Aquila’s presentation of Frankenstein, part of the Great Performances series at George Mason University, is adapted by Artistic Director Desiree Sanchez and Founder Peter Meineck. Sanchez and Meineck succeed in bringing us the full complexity of Shelley’s articulate, tortured creature rather than the familiar one-dimensional colossus often seen on film. It is a real pleasure to see a version of the story which adheres so closely to Shelley’s vision.

The introductory scene is based upon what happened when Mary Shelley (Eleanor McLoughlin), Percy Shelley (James Donovan), Lord Byron (Elliott Ross), Byron’s personal doctor John Polidori (Jack Klaff), and Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont (Lily Donovan) engaged in a playful competition as to who could tell the best ghost story. This incident ultimately led to Shelley’s completed novel, which made a sensation when first published anonymously.

The production restores key scenes from the 1818 original, which Mary Godwin Shelley (1797-1851) published when she was only 19. We see the Monster enraptured by the loving atmosphere of a family in exile, only to be crushed when they inevitably reject him. Robert Madeley, as the Monster, has a passionate, highly intelligent argument with James Donovan’s Victor Frankenstein about the nature of parenthood. What does Victor, as a parent, owe to the desperate and needy being he has created, who resorts to violence out of his overwhelming pain?

In Mary Shelley’s time, it was thought pointless to educate women beyond skills necessary to charm a suitable male and become a good wife and mother. Mary, however, was born into an unusual household. Her mother, famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), was known principally as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Her father, William Godwin (1756-1836) was a noted philosopher and considered the first modern anarchist.

Mary Wollstonecraft died of an infection shortly after her daughter was born. At age sixteen, Mary Godwin fell in love with Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and eloped with him, causing him to abandon a wife whom he had seduced at the same age, with whom he had a child. Mary’s father William then rejected her. Mary was forced to tolerate Percy’s infidelities, and the novel Frankenstein features female characters who seem to have little influence over the actions of the men in their lives.

Aquila Theatre's 'Frankenstein.' Photo by Richard Termine.
Aquila Theatre’s ‘Frankenstein.’ Photo by Richard Termine.

In Aquila’s modernized version, Dr. Walton, the scientist who becomes intrigued by the Monster, is played by a woman. Caroline Moroney’s performance adds a welcome note of female strength and empowerment to the Frankenstein story. The performances are strong, particularly Madeley as the Monster and Lily Donovan as Victor Frankenstein’s love Elizabeth Valenza. Eleanor McLoughlin has some fine moments as Justine Moritz, who falls victim to the Monster’s deceptive cruelty. Jack Klaff shines as Alphonse Frankenstein, and Elliott Ross is winning as Victor’s best friend, Henry Clerval.

Lighting and Scene Design by Steve Mackie is exceptionally striking. The costumes, by Peter Todd, and Sound Design, by Jo Walker, fit seamlessly into Director Sanchez’s overall conception.

At times Shelley’s language feels a bit out of place in the modern setting. But this Frankenstein, from the “birth” of the Monster, to the terrifying conclusion, is an engrossing theater piece which asks vital questions about the essential nature of man, the advent of artificial intelligence, and the obligations of parenthood.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Frankenstein was performed for one night only, November 18, 2018, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA 22030. For more information about the touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, visit Aquila Theatre’s website. For tickets to other shows in George Mason University’s Great Performances Season, call the box office at 888-945-2468, or visit their calendar of events.

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve been a rabid admirer of the Aquila Theatre ever since they first arrived in New York in the early ’90s, when they performed (I think) at the Vineyard Theatre on 15th St. I had no idea they were coming to DC! Thank you for letting us know that they were here. I hope they return for a longer run.

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