Hideous Progeny: the weekend that produced Frankenstein has so much drama in its premise, you’d swear it’s as much of a fable as the novel that came out of it. You have Lord Byron, a scandal-ridden celebrity; Percy Bysshe Shelley, a rising star in the world of poetry; and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of two of Britain’s most famous philosophers. Count also Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont and Byron’s attendant, Dr. John Polidori. From that Alpine summer came the third canto of Byron’s Childe Harold; Polidori’s The Vampyre, which gave birth to Western vampire fiction; and Mary Shelley’s own Frankenstein, which dwarfed them both by orders of magnitude.
In light of the creative output of that summer, it’s easy to overlook the sticky web of romance and scandal that bound the participants together, although perhaps it’s the proximate cause. Mary and Percy were sleeping together but weren’t married, partly due to Percy’s theories on free love and partly because he wasn’t yet divorced from his first wife, Harriet. They traveled with Claire, who may have been in love with Percy but was definitely infatuated with Byron and already pregnant with his child. Byron himself was fleeing scandal in Britain, eager for separation from his wife Isabella yet still wanting custody of their daughter. And Dr. Polidori’s literary aspirations were clear but were not much humored by his companions.
Emily Dendinger’s Hideous Progeny takes that source material and casts it into a weekend of gossip and high drama. When Byron challenges the company to come up with an original ghost story over the next three days, it touches off a chain of intrigue and recrimination. Everyone gets their old grudges out, accusing each other of slights and hiding behind ideals or intoxication. It’s sordid, biting, passionate and petty – a story of relationship breakdown in the tradition of The Lion in Winter or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Dendinger wrote one of the tightest, cleverest scripts I’ve seen in contemporary theater. There’s more drama crammed into the first act than you’d find in most modern plays: Mary confronting Byron; Byron teasing and avoiding Clare by turns; Percy and Mary saying plenty and leaving more unsaid. A subplot between Dr. Polidori and Elise, the hired maid, adds a touch of uplift to what could otherwise be a dark and bitter story. But even the feuds have their levity, when the author – or the characters, themselves authors – take a moment to comment on the absurdity of their situation.
Nathaniel Gundy (Shelley) does an excellent job with a tricky role. He ignores Mary’s needs for affection, acknowledgment and legitimacy not because he’s an asshole, but because he’s consumed by his own beliefs. He’s a hyper-rational ideologue who doesn’t understand why everyone is so mad at him, a character type that’s rarely explored in literature and is tough to make sympathetic. Maggie Erwin (Claire) and Julia Specht (Mary) bring gravity and passion to their very young characters, particularly when Claire reveals that she has a brain in her head and ambitions of her own. Or when Mary sits, jaw agape in disgust, as Victor Shopov’s Byron teases her for failing to live up to the expectations of her literary heritage, or having killed her mother in childbirth. Alex Simoes (Polidori) has particularly excellent comic timing, a master of several small gestures and expressions that had the audience howling.
The black box at the Boston Playwrights Theatre, though excellently appointed, felt a bit cramped. One scene featured Percy literally wedged between a writing desk and a large metal bracket in the wall, having an argument across the room with Mary. The lighting lacked variety: while it was easy to tell a 4am confession from a 7pm argument, it was impossible to tell dinner time from breakfast. Costumes, however, were excellent, particularly Byron’s several outfits. The set decoration itself was full of perfect little details, giving the stage the feel of a lived-in summer cabin: packed to overflowing with books, and too cramped to avoid each other after a fight. Of which there are several.