Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bloomsday are two literary adaptions which might seem diametrically opposed in subject matter, yet their prominent similarity is they both prove the importance of capturing the respective tones of their source material.
Frankenstein, produced at Lookingglass with the company’s usual emphasis on staging, plays with the conceit that the non-fiction behind the novel could induce more chills than the ubiquitous story of a mad scientist and the life he creates. The origins of Mary Shelley’s novel are well known, and the play begins in a cramped but lush sitting room with five affluent pre-Victorians killing boredom with a contest to see who could tell the best ghost story. Using the same theatrical technique as the musical Man of La Mancha, Mary Shelley (Cordelia Dewdney) and her four listeners begin to perform her tale. Bits of the “actors ” egos and insecurities add depth to their play within the play.
As the adaptation for a horror novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein includes some fun jumps for the audience, most memorably the rhythmic banging from beneath a trap door as the terrified Victor Frankenstein awaits the first look at the being he has created. Also, the monster (Keith D. Gallagher, in a dual role as Lord Byron) is a horrifying spectacle to behold—connected body tissues held together by a glossy layer of blood that remains on the monster for all scenes (credit costume designer Sully Ratke). Yet, the most fruitful innovation from writer/director David Catlin’s* script occurs when Mary, while suffering from the trauma of her own life and from playing the ill-fated Elizabeth in her story, receives the unwanted gift of prophecy. She tells the guests one by one of their futures. The three men will all die within eight years (a suicide by arsenic, a mysterious drowning following bouts of depression, and a death by fever while fighting in Greece). The two women (including Mary) who will suffer multiple miscarriages between them. The transformations of the five principles characters from careless partiers to those doomed to unhappiness mirrors the transformations of the cursed Doctor Frankenstein and his rejected creation.
Bloomsday, produced by Remy Bumppo, uses source material from a very different work: the critically-lauded but rarely read Ulysses. A flagship text of modernism, Ulysses is known for its length (it would equal about two-and-a-half Moby Dicks) and its experimental use of stream of consciousness with occasional abandonment of punctuation. Playwright Steven Dietz is in tune with his audience, for one need not read Ulysses to grasp the relevant subtext of Bloomsday. At the start, Caithleen (Bryce Gangel), an Irish tour guide in her early 20’s, is chiding the one member of her morning James Joyce walking tour who made it to the end because his obnoxiousness scared off the other tourists. Robert (Shawn Douglas), an American professor of literature, is pompous in his criticisms of Ulysses. In their discussion, Dietz manages to work in jabs about the preposterousness of Ulysses while also explaining a key element— Ulysses is a story in which three characters exist simultaneously in the Dublin of the past and the Dublin of the present. Thus, it is not much of a spoiler to state that the four actors in Bloomsday embody the same two characters at different points in their lives—a before-and-after picture in which the 50-year-olds caution their 20-year-old selves while knowing that they cannot change the past.
Bloomsday captures a tone founded on a singular human experience: the regret we feel from missed opportunities. Caithleen and Robbie (Jack DeCesare) meet in their early 20’s when Caithleen invites Robbie to join her afternoon walking tour so it will have 14 members (rather than the ominous 13). The two fall in love that afternoon but cannot overcome an argument that ensues when Robbie confesses that he encouraged the others on the tour to leave so he could spend time alone with Caithleen. Robert and Cait (Annabel Armour), their 30-years-older incantations, interact freely with their younger selves as they relive the attempts each made in trying to find the other after the fight, searching various locals throughout Dublin. At its heart, Bloomsday is a story of romance, and the success of the script lies in the four actors’ combined ability to make us believe that Caithleen and Robbie are destined for each other. We expect tragedy as they evolve into the unhappy, regretful Robert and Cait, but the surprise ending conveys that mistakes of the past might not be as cemented in time as we believe.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bloomsday both provide new spins on classic material. Choosing a preference between the two exceptional plays might be trivial, but the prospect is intriguing because it pits a modernized version of gothic horror against an accessible version of modernism. It pits a fear about our unknown futures against a hope that we might be able to overcome the mistakes of our pasts. All told, I enjoyed shivering during many scenes of the more action-packed Frankenstein (particularly its clairvoyant climax), but the much simpler Bloomsday left me with a lasting sense of optimism that occurs too rarely in great theater.
*David Catlin is also the mastermind behind two of Lookingglass’s most memorable literary adaptations—Lookingglass Alice and Moby Dick.