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Mary Shelley Monster Show

by Nick Otten

Based on a Concept by Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts

Directed by Kelley Weber

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

August 20, 2014

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) is closing out its year-long “Season of the Monster” with a brand new show that revolves, partly, around one of the most iconic monster stories ever.  Mary Shelley Monster Show even opens with a montage of projections of various versions of the infamous monster that’s at the heart of Shelley’s most famous work, Frankenstein. This story, though, is about much more than Frankenstein. In this innovative, technically stunning  production, SATE brings Mary Shelley and her world to life in an entertaining and thoroughly riveting manner.

The play is short but extremely contemplative, and it’s never boring.  As Mary (Rachel Tibbetts) poses for her most well-known portrait by painter Richard Rothwell (the offstage voice of Carl Overly, Jr.), she recalls the important moments of her life and the people-both real and imaginary–that inhabited it.  These characters, from the monster himself to such real-life figures as Mary’s poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her father William Godwin, the illustrious poet Lord Byron and others, are all played by Ellie Schwetye. Through Mary’s recollections, reenactments, and an abundance of projections, we are given a glimpse into Mary’s mind as she recalls historic moments in her life, and her various relationships with those who have been most important to her.  We also see her relationship with her work, represented by her various philosophical discussions with the shadowy figure of the monster, who gradually evolves throughout the course of the show and challenges Mary to think about her relationship, as a writer, with her creation. It’s an exploration of one woman’s life and also the lives of famous literary figures and of one work in particular and how that work has survived its creator and even eclipsed her in notoriety, reflected in the play as Mary tells the monster–who questions his reality–that a creation often becomes more “real” than its creator.

What’s real here is the sheer wonder of this production, both technically and in its performances. Tibbetts gives a reflective, confident performance as Mary, portraying her various stages of life and conflicting emotions with veracity and depth.  From her regrets over the deaths of loved ones, to her deep love and near-worship of her dynamic husband, to her verbal sparring with the charismatic Byron, Tibbetts is thoroughly affecting.  Schwetye also impresses in at least nine different roles, portraying this wide range of characters clearly with, for the most part, only minimal changes in costume.  She is particularly effective as the self-confident Byron, as the reassuring ghostly figure of Mary’s late mother, as Mary’s emotional step-sister “Claire”, and especially as the increasingly confrontational monster.  Schwetye makes the transitions between the various characters seem effortless, and the chemistry between her (in her various incarnations) and Tibbetts is excellent.  Lending support to these two dynamic actresses is Overly, who never actually appears onstage but manages to make an impression with his voice, as the painter who serves as something of a catalyst and sounding board for Mary’s reflections.

Technically, this show is nothing short of marvelous. With a striking set by David Blake, along with Bess Moynihan’s atmospheric lighting, Michael B. Perkins’s abundant and colorful projections, Elizabeth Henning’s costumes and Schwetye’s sound design, this production strikes and maintains just the right mood.  It’s haunting, reflective and educational all at the same time. This team has managed to use the somewhat limited space in the small Chapel venue to its best advantage, taking the audience on a trip into Mary Shelley’s world and into her very thoughts.  This is  great example of a show in which the technical elements add to the drama of the production rather than dominating or distracting from it. It’s  a highly commendable effort from all involved.

This is a unique and fascinating play that educates as it entertains, as well as providing a basis for thoughtful discussions on the nature of writing and of an artist’s relationship to her craft. It’s another triumph for the collective creative talents of SATE. Over the past few years, this small, unpretentious theatre company has consistently turned out some of the most exciting,intriguing productions in St. Louis. I’m constantly impressed at how much the team at SATE continues to grow and stretch their limits as a company, continually trying to challenge expectations and then rising to the challenge. It’s companies like this that help make the St. Louis theatre scene great. Mary Shelley Monster Show is the latest, and quite possibly the greatest, of SATE’s many successes.  I look forward to seeing what their next season brings.

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

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