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.
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!
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.)
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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