Not one, not two, not three but four adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel “Frankenstein” are debuting this season and next on Chicago stages. Each production — at Lifeline Theatre, Remy Bumppo Theatre, Manual Cinema at Court Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre — promises to be vastly different both aesthetically and visually.
Why the hoopla? Shelley’s iconic story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates is celebrating a 200th anniversary. Shelley began writing the piece in 1816 near Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, where she was on holiday with poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (her future husband) and Lord Byron, physician John Polidori and Claire Clairmont (her stepsister). After an evening reading German ghost stories, Byron suggested they each write a ghost story.
Shelley, the daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and anarchistic philosopher William Godwin, grew up liberal, intellectual circles. Only 18 when she started writing “Frankenstein,” Shelley was a keen observer of the world around her. The novel isn’t simply a science fiction/horror story but a commentary on many issues of the time, as well as Shelley’s own life experiences of grief and loss.
The quartet of adaptations of her seminal work is a rare chance to see four diverse companies dive deep into the myriad themes and universal questions of one of literature’s great novels.
“With each [production] being so varied in presentation style and thematic focus, it allows for audiences to curate as rich of an experience as they’d like,” says Lifeline Ensemble member Robert Kauzlaric. “You can see one show and appreciate everything it has to offer as a stand-alone piece, or you can take in several of them — or all of them — and dig into the different interpretations and points of view and really engage with all of the depth Shelley’s novel has to offer.”
Here’s a look at each of the currently running or upcoming productions of “Frankenstein”:
Lifeline Theatre (to Nov. 11; lifelinetheatre.com):
Robert Kauzlaric had been thinking about grief and knew he wanted to wrestle with that somehow on stage. When he reread “Frankenstein,” he saw it in an entirely different light. “There are a million themes going on in the book, but they all fell away for me except this idea of this creature and the structure of the book itself as a metaphor for a grief experience.”
His adaptation changes Victor Frankenstein into Victoria Frankenstein. At the time young women did not write stories of this sort, and the anonymous author was thought to be a man. “I wanted to shine a light on the fact that this story was written by a woman,” Kauzlaric says. “Whatever layers she had put between herself and the story, it is still her story.”
Kauzlaric and director Paul S. Holmquist approached the monster’s design through puppetry: “We wanted the creature to be a literal object, a collection of Victoria’s memories and tokens and relics from her life with her father who has died. These pieces of her soul are taken from her by the overwhelming needs of the monster she has created.”
Remy Bumppo Theatre (to Nov. 17; remybumppo.org)
Remy Bumppo stages Nick Dear’s 2011 adaptation, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller at London’s National Theater. (The production was recorded and will screen in local theaters on Oct. 22 and 29; see fathomevents.com.)
“At first we never thought we’d get the rights plus the scale of it is just impossible,” director Ian Frank says. “But I’m drawn to ideas of how to make the impossible happen in an intimate space.”
The twist in Dear’s version is that each night the two lead actors (Nick Sandys and Greg Matthew Anderson) alternate playing Victor Frankenstein and the monster. “We’re interested in the humanity of the creature so that really drives the performances,” Frank says. “Nick and Greg have found very different corners from which to approach each portrayal.”
The scope of the story moves from the Black Forest to the Alps to the islands of Scotland to the Arctic. Frank says the challenge was “to create each of those worlds and move the story between them in a way that sweeps up the audience but still asks these big philosophical questions while keeping the storytelling deeply human.”
Manual Cinema at Court Theatre (Nov. 1-Dec. 2; courttheatre.org)
There is a long history of cinematic adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic but it’s a sure bet Manual Cinema’s take will be wildly unique with its usual blend of cameras, overhead projectors, actors and puppets. “It seemed like a really rich piece for us to not only address the novel but to also address the cinematic myth of ‘Frankenstein,’ ” co-artistic director Sarah Fornace says.
This production, which is accompanied by a live chamber ensemble, will also weave Mary Shelley’s own biography into the storytelling. Each segment of the piece is told with different cinematic traditions ranging from cranking scrolls and magic lanterns to silent movies and an array of puppets.
Fornace marvels at the wealth of different themes and ideas in Shelley’s story: “There is so much in this novel that I could watch 12 different stage versions and I feel they would all explore different aspects of the story.”
Lookingglass Theatre (May 8-Aug. 4, 2019; lookingglasstheatre.org):
Adaptor David Catlin was struck by the fact that “Frankenstein” was written by an 18-year-old woman. “How could this dark, brooding, beautiful, weird novel come out of such a young mind? I’m interested in ideas of why we create but also in looking at Mary Shelley’s life and how it intersects with our play.”
The Lookingglass edition begins on the night of the Lake Geneva ghost stories in the lakeside villa with the five characters — the Shelleys, Bryon, Polidori and Clairmont — then going on to play all the characters in the retelling of the novel.
Actor Keith Gallagher portrays the monster, and Catlin says he and the design team are still figuring out whether it’s makeup or mask. “Keith is a really strong actor with a big, deep soul. He’s the perfect person to portray Frankenstein’s monster.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.