‘Shelley’ finds new angle on familiar real-life story of love, poetry … and horror

shelley review


Ryan Natalino, left, and B.C. Miller co-star in Hudson Theatre Works’ production of “Shelley.”

History tells us that in 1818, 18-year old Mary Shelley was vacationing with her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his friend Lord Byron at a chalet in Switzerland. Housebound by bad weather, the trio decided to amuse themselves by each writing a ghost story. Mary eventually fleshed hers out into the novel “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus,” a landmark of both sci-fi and horror fiction, and the story of its genesis has been reimagined several times in novels and films.

There was another person at that party who has largely been a footnote to history: Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont. But in “Shelley,” a new play by Hudson Theatre Works’ playwright-in-residence Joanne Hoersch, this becomes Claire’s story to tell. As the (figurative) curtain rises, we meet her as an old woman (Joanne Guarnaccia) and she becomes our guide and narrator, flashing back some 60 years to the events that led up to “Frankenstein.” The always-electrifying B.C. Miller, an HST repertory player, portrays the young Claire as a wide-eyed, free-spirited waif whose sexual appetite plays havoc with Mary and Percy’s marriage.

With its proscenium-less, eye-level stage and no set design beyond a minimal number of props and rear screen projections, Hudson Theatre Works asks that the audience’s imagination fills in the blanks. That’s especially true in this production, in which the raven-haired, teenaged Mary Shelley is played by the adult, red-headed Ryan Natalino, and stocky, ginger-haired Daniel Melchiorre portrays the dark, lithe Percy Shelley.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley lived a remarkable, unhappy and driven life, and Hoersch’s play hits many of the important historical markers that defined it. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a renowned feminist philosopher who argued that girls should be afforded the same opportunities in education and career advancement as men. But Mary knew her mother only by her reputation and books — the elder Mary died two weeks after giving birth — and the daughter devoted much of her life toward living up to her mother’s lofty ideals.


B.C. Miller, left, Ryan Natalino and Daniel Melchiorre in “Shelley.”

Mary’s father, William Godwin (Todd Hilsee), was even more famous, a political philosopher whose house guests included Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr but who lived most of his adult life heavily in debt. William’s work as a tutor brought 25-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley into the household as a student, and although Shelley was married with two children at the time, he was soon having a torrid affair with Godwin’s 16-year-old daughter Mary.

Claire, the child of Godwin’s first wife, fell in love with the dashing, romantic Shelley, too, and the three traveled through Europe together. In the play, that includes a harrowing sojourn in France that runs smack into the horrors of the French Revolution. Some historians believe Claire played the role of the third wheel in the relationship, while others suggest that Shelley — who famously espoused “free love” — bedded both women for years.

Hoersch’s play chooses the latter take, imagining a stormy ménage à trois that ultimately left both women unsatisfied and Mary even more desperate to make a mark in the world, espousing her mother’s stance on female independence. Every so often, the action pauses as Natalino’s Mary makes a speech to that effect.

Along the way, Hoersch drops breadcrumbs leaving a trail that leads to her greatest work: Percy introduces Mary to galvanism (electric current as a therapeutic device); Mary dreams of escaping to glaciers and frozen wastelands; the trio meets a war victim whose scars and backstory inspire much of “Frankenstein.”

Well into the second act, Hoersch retcons history. The trio never gets to Switzerland to meet Lord Byron; Mary all but ad-libs the “Frankenstein” story in Shelley’s London flat a year earlier, and conceives many of its themes in her diary even earlier. So much for impromptu ghost stories!


From left, B.C. Miller, Ryan Natalino and Joanne Guarnaccia in “Shelley.”

Hoersch, who also wrote HST’s “Bunnies” (about her experiences as a Playboy bunny), has structured “Shelly” in a series of short vignettes that lurch from anecdote to anecdote, sometimes separated by only days or weeks. These blackouts become a bit tedious, with each of the play’s two acts divided into nine or 10 mini-acts introduced by title cards like a silent movie. The first act goes to intermission abruptly, as does the second act — so much so that the audience didn’t realize the play was over.

After greeting the audience, the elder Claire sits to stage right observing the story unfold, occasionally — and inexplicably — inserting herself into the action. Major tragedies occur offstage — the suicides of Percy’s first wife and Mary’s half-sister Fanny, and the miscarriage of Mary’s first child — all accompanied by much hand-wringing and histrionics.

While that may make for a dishy soap opera or romance novel, it fails as literary biography. For while this Mary Shelley makes a fine role model for young women looking to upend patriarchal conventions and assert female equality (presumably Hoersch’s goal), where is the macabre young woman who sat at her mother’s grave for hours on end, alone and scribbling into her notebooks?

Granted, it’s next to impossible to portray the life of a writer in a play or a film, since so much of the person lives in their words. We get a small sampling of Mary Shelley’s diaries in the play, but little that suggests the author she would become. (In “Frankenstein,” the monster quotes Milton’s “Paradise Lost”; there is little about Mary here to suggest she ever read it.)


Daniel Melchiorre and Ryan Natalino in “Shelley.”

Melchiorre’s Percy Shelley makes even less historical sense; there is nothing even vaguely poetic about the character or his dialogue. Emma Jensen’s screenplay for the 2018 film “Mary Shelley” — with Elle Fanning as the titular heroine — botched this same story, but at least it extensively quoted Percy’s poetry. Melchiorre plays a believable political and social nonconformist — Shelley was considered a radical in his day — but his burly masculinity suggests a tousled rugby player more than an effete Romantic poet. The real Percy Shelley fainted when read Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; Melchiorre’s Shelley seems more likely to start a bar fight.

Frank Licato’s direction remains, as always, crisp and clean, with exquisite comic timing whenever there is a laugh to be had. Kudos to the cast, as well, for their flawless British accents.

Mary Shelley’s life was so bizarre, so wrought with tragedy and betrayal, that she was even denied authorship of her masterpiece for years. The sexist British public assumed her husband had written it, until “Frankenstein” was republished with her name on the cover.

After the events of this play conclude, Mary would lose Percy in a bizarre boating accident and two of her three children would die in childhood. Instead of living out her life as an esteemed author, she spent her final years dedicated to promoting the work of her faithless husband, who did not gain widespread recognition until years after his death.

“Shelley” tries. But this might be a case where a true life story exceeds the ability of a play to tell it.

Hudson Theatre Works presents “Shelley” through May 21; visit hudsontheatreworks.org.


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Frank Licato May 9, 2023 - 2:20 pm

I saw this , and this critic is completely wrong. He misses the point. The story is not a bio of Mary Shelley. It is a fantasy about what inspired her to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein. About the creative process and how that might come to be. Not some regurgitation of her life. This critic, as usual, wants a play to conform to his idea about what he thinks a play should be rather then what he’s watching and what the author is attempting to do. Also, as a side note, his tendency to describe actors physically, is very John Simon like and should not be tolerated. BTW, the acting and direction are terrific.

Joanne Hoersch May 9, 2023 - 3:14 pm

I am the playwright who wrote “Shelley.” I never represented that I was telling the actual story of how Mary came to write Frankenstein. I took facts about her life and Percy’s life and imagined what might have been the genesis of her nightmare at Villa Diodati. That I don’t adhere to the “facts” of her life is a given. I researched their lives for seven years. It sounds like you pulled your facts from Wikipedia rather than doing any deep research. But aside from that, you have repeatedly faulted our plays because of the physical appearance of our actors and I simply can not tolerate that kind of criticism. You did it in Machinal, you did it in Bunnies. Sorry, Mr. Testa, but criticizing our Percy for being too burly is beyond the pale and should never, ever be a part of a critique. The same goes for your outrage that we cast a redhead as Mary. What on earth are you there to critique? The physical appearance of the characters? The “facts” that you threw together about their lives? This was a work of the imagination, a work of art that asks the audience not to follow the actual paths of these amazing peoples’ lives (there are at least 5 versions of almost every event in Mary’s life) but to look at the play as a “What if?” To dive into the creative process (which you completely missed) and to offer a possible way that she realized she was capable of writing a nightmare.

Linda Collins May 9, 2023 - 5:24 pm

I saw the play on Friday and I loved it. I don’t understand why Shelley needed to be portrayed in one way. In Gothic he is homosexual and in Haunted Summer he and Mary have an almost perfect relationship and she sleeps with Byron. It’s such a beautiful play and I loved the story within the story. All the regrets and all the memories, It was beautiful b/c I’m old now too and live on memories. Your review is so unforgiving. Hudson Theatre Works doesn’t have enough money to have rotating stages and quick changes. Why don’t you understand their financial limits? It’s like you’re blaming them for working within their limits.Mean.

Frank Licato May 13, 2023 - 5:50 pm

One of my favorite theatre companies in the New York area is Hudson Theatre Works. Coming from Connecticut, I don’t always “like” their work but they always manage to challenge the audience and ask them to make up their own minds.

I am happy to report that (they are actually in an old school building in Weehawken, NJ) that their latest is provocative and challenging.

“Shelley”, by Joanne Hoersch, is a radiant take on how the creation of a work of art is a torture, a bliss, a collaboration of memory, experience and courage, that takes us by the hand with its framing character, 78 year old Claire Clairmont, who, in her youth, was part of a ménage à trois with the Romantic poet Percy Shelley and more importantly for this story, his wife and Claire’s stepsister, Mary Shelley. She invites us to “come, share these memories with me.”

We follow them from their high spirited escape from Mary’s overbearing father to what they envision is a liberated France where women have the right, as Percy says, “to choose whom they will marry or even if they will marry.”

What they discover is a far cry from what they expected; France is a desolate land pillaged by years of revolution, The Terror and now the Napoleonic Wars. They meet one man, scarred, mutilated by the wars, one eye bulging from a smashed bone, his arms telling the history of attacks by both the Jacobins and Napoleon’s army. Claire is repulsed by the man’s appearance while Mary is haunted by him.

And so begins Mary’s journey towards creating what will become one of the most influential novels ever written; Frankenstein.

The play cleverly and poignantly inserts the group’s experiences with hallucinatory drugs, an experiment with reanimation (it was believed at this time that applying electrical current to a dead person could bring the person back to life), open marriage, radical politics, as well as a beautifully rendered story of a young duchess who was sent to the guillotine.

Mary’s rich imagination runs in parallel to the harsh realities of her life. Rather than witnessing the electrical spark of life, we witness the spark of creativity, the struggle to find the artist’s voice, as well as the fear but also the excitement of jumping into the void to write something that has never been written before. Claire, the least talented but most life affirming character in the play, tells us in her final monologue that “I read some of my poetry to Percy, and briefly looked up at him. I could tell how ordinary he thought I was and it delighted him “ She freely admits that Percy and Mary’s names will never be lost to history, but hers will. Yet, she stands as the lone survivor, the only one left who knows what the true, not the mythic content of their lives actually was.

Ryan Natalino brings a passionate commitment to the role of Mary, pushing her life forward towards something she knows is there, yet still unreachable. BC Miller as Claire is a delight, sexually brave, light hearted with an impeccable sense of comic timing and an important counterpoint to Mary’s intellectualism. Daniel Melchiorre’s Percy is, despite his radical views, an aristocrat, and Mr. Melchiorre expertly navigates the tightrope between what Percy believes and what Percy is. Todd Hilsee as Mary’s father, William Godwin, lets us feel the weight he carries of having once been famous and relevant and now reduced to poverty and dependency. His disgust with Percy is a thinly veiled jealousy of Percy’s standing in the world, which enhances the enmity between them. And Joanne Guarnnacia, as the older version of Claire, reliably keeps a strong hold on the narrative until her final monologue, which brought me to tears. Frank Licato’s direction, as always, is precise and spare. And, as usual, he always gets wonderful performances from the actors. The set and lighting by Gregory Erbach is evocative, as are the costumes by Ann Lowe and the sound/music by Donald Stark.


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