Review: 'Mary Shelley Monster Show' at SATE – Just What the Doctor Ordered

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

With a title like “Mary Shelley Monster Show,” one might expect a madcap, satirical romp through the author’s most famous creation, “Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus.” One would, as they say, be wrong. What you will see instead is a thoughtful, meticulously curated theater piece that explores Shelley’s relationships within her extraordinary circle—which included her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and celebrated poet Lord Byron—as well as her relationship with the monster of her own creation.

Rachel Tibbitts and Ellie Schwetye in "Mary Shelley Monster Show" Courtesy of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbitts and Ellie Schwetye in “Mary Shelley Monster Show”
Courtesy of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Everything works here. The play opens with Mary Shelley—played with nuance and conviction by Rachel Tibbetts—sitting for what will become the famous portrait of her by Richard Rothwell (who is voiced from offstage by Carl Overly, Jr.) As the painter asks Shelley questions about her past, she reminisces and we witness the scenes as they play out with husband Percy, Lord Byron, her famous writer/philosopher parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and others, all portrayed by a versatile Ellie Schwetye, who often exits the stage just to immediately reenter as another character with nothing more than a small article of clothing and a physical change to fully depict the new character.

Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbitts in "Mary Shelley Monster Show" Courtesy of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbitts in “Mary Shelley Monster Show”
Courtesy of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Schwetye also plays the monster, blurred behind a scrim—not the square-headed, bolt-necked fellow we’re accustomed to, but a twisted, mangled shadow; not so much a representation of the monster’s actual physicality, but his aggrieved mental state. In the novel, the creature is something of a tortured soul, saying of mankind, “from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery.” It serves as an inkling of a metaphor for Shelley’s desire to be recognized for her own work and accomplishments. When “Frankenstein” was first published anonymously, there were many who believed her very famous husband had written a good deal of the novel, which was false.

Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbitts in "Mary Shelley Monster Show" Courtesy of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye (behind screen) and Rachel Tibbitts in “Mary Shelley Monster Show”
Courtesy of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Kelley Weber’s direction keeps the piece moving; an accomplishment in a show that is heavy on dialogue and short on action. Nick Otten’s script—which is based on Tibbetts’ and Schwetye’s concept—packs a lot into this one-act. David Blake’s plank-slatted set sets a captivating scene, which is assisted by Michael B. Perkins’ video design that includes a series of Frankenstein monster images projected upstage and onto a blank canvas that stands next to the podium, including, for example, the image of the portrait that resulted from the sitting.

Director Weber never lets the video component “take over” a scene or distract. Bess Moynihan’s lights add a great deal of atmosphere. Elizabeth Henning designed the minimal costumes. “Mary Shelley Monster Show” and Rachel Tibbetts’ sober and effective portrayal of Shelley offers a very smart look into a celebrated writer that the literati will find intriguing, but is also accessible enough for general playgoers, madcap romp or not.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s “Mary Shelley Monster Show” continues at The Chapel through Aug. 30. For tickets and information visit the theater’s website.

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