The devil’s in the details:
Anachronisms mar historical drama
|LiveWire Chicago Theatre presents|
|By Emily Dendinger
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago (map)
Through Sept. 26 | Tickets: $15–20 | more info
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
When you’re creating a work of historical fiction, the most important part lies in getting your history straight. Lacking grounding in its period and riddled with historical anachronisms that distract from the drama, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s Hideous Progeny, a new play by Emily Dendinger now at Storefront Theater in the Loop, loses coherency.
Set at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland, house rented by George Gordon Byron during the summer following the Romantic poet’s self-imposed exile from England, Hideous Progeny focuses on the probably apocryphal tale of the horror-story competition said to have inspired the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was staying near Byron with her lover, poet Percy Byshe Shelley.
It starts out well, with Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s lovely period set — a library scene with a tall, laddered bookcase, an upright piano, a small writing desk, a billiards table and brocade curtains framing leaded-glass windows from which flashes of lightning suggest the unpleasant weather of "The Year Without Summer.” Yet that’s all that evokes the early 19th century. Little about the play’s costumes, dialogue or acting brings to mind British gentry of the 1800s.
Hideous Progeny takes place in 1816, the height of the British Regency, a highly distinctive period when Beau Brummell dictated London fashions. Not only do Laura Kollar‘s costumes rarely flatter their wearers, they appear historically incorrect. Shelley looks like a 1950s frat boy. It’s unlikely that any Englishwoman of the time, no matter how bohemian, would have sported nose jewelry or an ankle chain, as Mary Godwin does here.
Nor would any lady of 1816 have worn a dress with a zipper, which had yet to be invented and wasn’t on the market until after the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble over minor costuming details, but it becomes impossible to overlook this gaffe in a scene during which the dress is unzipped.
The script, too, contains its share of historical slipups. Byron is constantly drinking "merlot," which the real poet could not have done in Switzerland in 1816. Varietal names for wine were a New World marketing ploy that began in the 1970s — even today, European wines are largely labeled by geographic region — and the merlot grape was used only as a secondary blending variety until late in the 19th century. It puzzles me why the playwright, deciding she needed to mention a specific wine over and over again, didn’t trouble to look up one fitting her period.
Dendinger also plays with the historical facts of her characters. In another peculiar error, Shelley claims to possess a title, like Lord Byron’s.
Byron supposedly misses his young daughter "whose mother has taught her to confuse the meanings of the words ‘papa’ and ‘Satan,’" and expresses his hopes that she’ll join him if his wife "refuses the divorce." Yet in fact, Byron most reluctantly agreed to legal separation from his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and their child would still have been a babe in arms whom he’d not seen since a month after her birth the previous December.
Byron wrote poignantly of his daughter Ada in the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," but no evidence suggests he ever tried to gain custody, despite English law giving fathers all rights. The play deals with this by hinting at dark accusations Lady Byron might have brought against him. but never mentions them directly. (Byron was accused in his lifetime of committing incest with his half sister. It’s also rumored that he was bisexual and engaged in sodomy with both male and female partners.)
There’s nothing wrong with altering history for the sake of drama … if it works. This doesn’t ring true. The arrogant Byron of this play seems unlikely to pine for an infant he’d barely seen, particularly given his callousness when his current bedmate turns up pregnant.
While those familiar with the subjects will be troubled by the play’s lapses from history, Dendinger offers little help as to who’s who for those who don’t already know the saga of this menage. Besides Godwin and Shelley, Byron hosts his private physician, John William Polidori, depicted as a klutz with a crush on the Swiss maidservant, Elise, and Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Godwin’s younger stepsister, with whom the disdainful lord is sleeping. Clairmont has possibly also been intimate with Shelley — at any rate, she’s lived with him and her sister ever since the then 17-year-old Godwin ran off with the still-married Shelley just over two years previously.
Although some of the dialogue comes directly from the historic writers’ published words, Jessica Hutchinson directs her cast — Patrick King as Polidori, Tom McGrath as Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell as Clairmont, John Taflan as Byron and Hilary Williams as Godwin — as if they were playing in a modern soap opera. Only Madeline Long, as the French-speaking Elise, ever seems to shed a contemporary American persona.
If the out-of-period elements were meant to convey some connection to the present day, it’s too subtle. The production’s video trailers suggest that a spicier contemporary concept might once have been envisioned, yet the effect we get in the production as staged is that they spent so much money on the set, they couldn’t afford appropriate costumes, dramaturgy or a dialect coach.
Godwin, pregnant with her third child by Shelley, spends the play glowering, moody and jealous of Shelley’s relationship with Clairmont and prone to verbal jousting with Byron, who tends to bait her about her ur-feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication on the Rights of Woman." She’s still troubled over the death of her first, premature baby and rants about herself as a "death bride." Byron, however, forms the centerpiece of the play, portrayed as a morose and self-centered jerk. Shelley never really comes to life at all.
Nor does "Frankenstein." While watching writers write makes for boring theater, we get very little of what inspired the classic novel or Godwin’s thoughts as she created it, save for an intriguing scene in which Godwin and Polidori repeat an experiment by 18th-century biologist Luigi Galvani showing the effects of electrical impulses on a frog.
Besides "Frankenstein," the fateful summer of 1816 brought us Polidori’s seminal novel, "The Vampyre"; Shelley’s early ode, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"; and Byron’s eerie "Darkness"; all of which get short shrift from the playwright.
In the end, we’re left with a jumbled slice of meaningless, not-very-accurate life.
Scenic Designers: Anders Jacobson* & Judy Radovsky*
Costume Designer: Laura Kollar
Lighting Designer: Eric Branson*
Sound Designer: Sarah Ramos
Properties Designer: Maria DeFabo
Production Manager: Cory Conrad*
Technical Director: Steve Brackett
Assistant Stage Manager: Brittany Bugge
Stage Manager: Dianna Driscoll
Dramaturg: Benno Nelson
Director: Jessica Hutchinson
Playwright: Emily Dendinger
ABOUT PLAYWRIGHT: Emily Dendinger has had plays produced around the country including Massachusetts, North Dakota, Florida, and Virginia. Most recently her ten minute play The Kiss was seen in 20% Theater’s Snapshoot 2009 this past summer in Chicago. Her play Swimming After Dark was selected for performance at the 2006 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Regional Festival after being named one of the two winners in the 1X2 One Act Playwriting Competition the previous winter. Recently, it won the 2008 Women Playwrights’ Initiative’s Playwriting Competition and was produced in Orlando, FL. Emily is a recipient of the 2005 National Selection Team Kennedy Center Fellowship for Outstanding Achievements, and she is a twice participant in the KCACTF Summer Intensive Playwriting program. Her one-act play Family Tree was named the Senior Theatre League of America’s Best Play 2004, and is currently published by Dramatic Publishing. Emily is a Chicago Dramatists Network Playwright and just completed her Masters in Humanities with a focus on Literature and Playwriting from the University of Chicago.
ABOUT DIRECTOR: Jessica will make her LiveWire Chicago Theatre debut with Hideous Progeny. Since June 2007, she has served as Artistic Director for New Leaf Theatre (The Man Who Was Thursday, Touch, Six Years, The Dining Room, Vox Pandora). Other credits include BackStage Theatre Company (Orange Flower Water), Mary Arrchie (Abbie Hoffman Died for our Sins XX and XXI), Caffeine Theatre (Antigone Coffeehouse) and Goodman Theatre (assistant to the director – The Crowd You’re In With). Jessica is an associate member of SDC, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
Personnel and bios courtesy of LiveWire website