Saturday, October 9, 2021

"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" by Collide Theatrical Dance Company at the Southern Theater

For eight years, Collide Theatrical Dance Company has been creating new dance musicals, either with original stories or based on classic works. Even the pandemic didn't stop them - they presented an outdoor dance cabaret last fall when all of us were starved for live entertainment; produced a Valentine's Day video dance piece; and returned to the outdoor stage this spring for a dance musical based on Alice in Wonderland. Now they're back inside the best dance venue in town, the Southern Theater, for the premiere of their dance musical based not just on the well known 19th Century novel Frankenstein, but also on the life of its lesser known author, Mary Shelley. Over 75 minutes of continuous dance, the seven-person ensemble tells these remarkable interconnected stories with great emotion and vitality.

Since I didn't know much about Mary Shelley, I quickly read her Wikipedia page before the show, which I found helpful, because I like to know what's going on. But even if you don't know much about Mary Shelley before seeing the show, occasional voiceovers tell us all we need to know to understand the storytelling through dance. Mary's life is almost as dramatic a story as is her most famous creation. Daughter of the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after she was born, she embarked on a relationship with a married poet at a young age, published what is considered to be one of the greatest novels in English literature at age 20, and by the time she was 25 she had buried her husband and three children, after which she "devoted herself to the upbringing of her son and a career as a professional author," until her death at age 53 due to a brain tumor. Through music and dance, Collide tells this story as well as how the joys and tragedies of her life influenced her greatest work.

The seven-person company dances to a well-chosen selection of over 20 pop songs from recent and not so recent years, from "Born this Way" to "Human" to less obvious selections. In the past their dance musicals have featured a live band and vocalists, but recorded music is used in this show, perhaps due to safety concerns. I love a live band, but this soundtrack is very well constructed to smoothly flow from one song to the next with almost no applause breaks, which suits the dramatic storytelling.

photo by Lucas Wells
Betsy Nelson brings great humanity and emotional depth to the role of Mary Shelley, as we see her
transform from young girl in love, to mourning mother, to aspiring writer. She's the true hero of this piece, as she creates the world of the novel and seems to direct the action as we see it play out. Patrick Jeffrey is charming as her husband Percy, and then as she begins to write her story, he plays the role of Dr. Frankenstein, a character who's a little more unhinged, but not without parallels to her husband. Renee Guittar gives an earthy, animalistic performance as the creature, but also extremely sympathetic as we see that all she really wants is to be seen, to be loved, to be human. Grace Janiszewski, Megan Carver, Brian Bose, and Ben Siglin gorgeously dance every other role in the story. Choreographed by Regina Peluso and Heather Brockman (who also co-directed the piece), with additional choreography by Rush Benson, Jarod Boltjes, Renee Guittar, and Patrick Jeffrey, the individual and group dance pieces are modern, lyrical, thrilling (the lifts!), and above all emotionally true to the story, expressing the tragedy and terror, as well as rare moments of joy.

The wide open space on the floor of the Southern Theater, with the historic arch, is perfect for dance, and this show makes great use of it. The large and elaborate set pieces are gracefully moved in and out of the space by the dancers, including tall trees, windows and doors, period furniture, and Frankenstein's complex lab with flashing lights. The company is dressed in period-inspired costumes that still allow them the freedom of movement, with frequent changes for the ensemble members that help define character. Lighting effects range from warm to spooky, casting some fantastic shadows on the walls. (Set design by Robin McIntyre, costume design by Dakota Blankenship, and lighting design by Tony Stoeri.)

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a gorgeous dance tribute to the woman behind the monster, continues through October 24 at the Southern Theater. Click here for info and tickets, both in-person (proof of vaccination and mask required) and virtual.