When Mary Shelley — poet, essayist, novelist and, most famously, the creator of Frankenstein — lost one of the four babies she conceived with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (only one child ultimately survived), he placed her in a tub of ice water to stop the hemorrhaging that threatened her life. This provides the central image for Buntport Theater Company's My Hideous Progeny, a meditation on life, art, creativity and those determined outsiders and occasional exiles, the Romantic poets Shelley and Byron. The inspiration for Frankenstein was a parlor game during which Lord Byron challenged all the participants to write a ghost story. Percy Bysshe came up with a fragment. John Polidori, another writer who was also present, supposedly took up an eventually abandoned idea of Byron's and turned it into "The Vampyre," the first vampire story published in English.
The Buntporters have a long and honorable history of literary homage — the brilliant Kafka on Ice; a humorous meditation on Dumas, a forgotten library book and The Three Musketeers called Musketeer; and The World Is Mine, a serio-comic investigation of how Eugene O'Neill came to create Long Day's Journey Into Night. They've also dealt with ghosts and the Gothic a few times before, most notably in A Synopsis of Butchery, during which they trod deftly between humor and horror, invoking our profound fear of death and the unknown while maintaining an ironic awareness of the overblown quality of Victorian fears and cultural forms. But while we've come to expect some humor from this troupe, My Hideous Progeny is very serious.
The setting is simple and watery: the tub, which is periodically moved around the playing area (I couldn't help wondering if this wouldn't have carried more metaphorical resonance if the tub had stayed in one spot), ice floes, a constant movement of what appear to be waves across the floor — a reminder not only of Shelley's eventual death in a boating accident (his friend, Edward John Trelawney, supposedly reached into the flames of the funeral pyre to rescue his heart), but of the death of his first wife, who drowned herself after he deserted her. Doubtless quoting from letters and journals, the play gives us Mary Shelley's feverish thoughts, along with her husband's sleepwalking and laudanum-inspired delirium. There are dreams, symbols and meditations on art and creativity. The text draws a connection between Mary Shelley's dead children and the monster made up of stitched-together parts to which she gave literary birth. After Shelley's death, Mary also preserved his work and his reputation, so in a sense, she birthed him as a poet, too — or at least midwived his poetic reputation.
My Hideous Progeny
Presented by Buntport Theater Company through October 22, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com.
None of the five actors reveals those spiky and specific personalities we're accustomed to at Buntport, and though this shows admirable restraint, it also means that the only character that's at all interesting is Byron, who's played by Evan Weissman as a conceited fool and provides the play's few moments of humor. You'd never guess, though, that this was the man who wrote "She Walks in Beauty Like the Night" or "The Isles of Greece" — though Weissman does give a wonderful recitation of "Lines Inscribed on a Cup Formed From a Skull." And that's part of the problem with this production: These poets took themselves terribly seriously and were profoundly fascinated with the workings of their own neurasthenic minds, but if we're to maintain interest in their lives, we need to be reminded that they were also great. Despite all the lyrical talk, My Hideous Progeny gives us the narcissism without the poetry, while also withholding the creepy pleasures of a good ghost story.
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My Hideous Progeny is an extended tone poem that doesn't really spin magic or mesmerize as a tone poem should — and the truth is, I don't want to listen to a poem this long, anyway. It's like the actual experience of reading Shelley. Most everyone loves "Ozymandias," "To a Skylark" or the lovely snippet addressed to the moon: "Art thou pale for weariness/Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth/Wandering companionless/Among the stars that have a different birth/And ever changing, like a joyless eye/That finds no object worth its constancy." But how many of us really want to plow through all the lutes, dead violets and radiant mists of the long works?