Lake Geneva, 1816. Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Shelley and his 18 year old mistress Mary, their baby, and Mary’s stepsister (already pregnant with Byron’s child) are stuck inside during perhaps one of the worst vacation seasons of the past 200 years. A volcanic eruption in Indonesia had sent the global climate into a tail spin, and while much of the world starved due to widespread crop failures, this literati clique told each other ghost stories because they couldn’t go sailing. It was here that Mary Shelley penned the story that would become Frankenstein two years later–an appropriately legendary genesis for a text that would go on to become more iconic, relevant, and popular than probably everything the British Romantic poets wrote put together.
Emily Dendinger’s play Hideous Progeny, now at the Boston Playwright’s Theatre in a show by Holland Productions, takes some artistic liberties in adapting this historical moment into English major porn–I mean a play–like making Mary pregnant and writing Polidori (Alex Simoes) as a lovelorn fifth wheel. Dendinger also created the character of the Shelley’s nursemaid Elise (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) who, being illiterate in two languages, becomes a foil to these literati who spend there free time battle rapping in iambic pentameter.
It’s no surprise life at Byron’s rented villa revolves around Mary (Julia Specht) and that the play moves, almost from beginning to end, towards the composition of Frankenstein. There are many lines reminding us of Mary’s intellectual pedigree (she was the daughter of an intellectual power couple) and the play is plotted with a horror story writing contest organized by Byron (Victor Shopov), where the winner receives a letter recommendation to his publisher. What comes as a surprise is that the play is really about Byron and Mary. Dendinger very deliberately hints that not only does Byron have a crush on Mary, but that he only invited Percy (Nathaniel Gundy) to creep on her.
In 1816 Percy Shelley had a wife and two children, a pregnant girlfriend (again, a historical inaccuracy, but just by a few months), and a son by her, but hadn’t yet attained commercial success. Dendinger has penned him as a man almost pardoically wrapped up in his art and liberal politics without much concern for these practical matters. But Mary steps up as a provident teen mom and sees Byron’s competition as a way to secure their future, that is, if her Percy can win. She badgers him constantly to write the winning story like some men might be badgered to clean the garage. Hideous Progeny relies too much on the plot device of this writing competition. It’s the central point of action, the central metaphor for Percy’s imprudence and his and Mary’s relationship, and a make it or break it moment in Percy’s career. It’s always a problem when historical events are reduced to conventional and diagram like fictions.
Fortunately snappy and well written dialogue, particular between Byron and Shelley, and a familiarity with and focus on the poets, poetry and the period, rather than Hollywood Frankenstein imagery (although we do get a little of that), make the play worthwhile. Victor Shopov is outright magnetic as Dendinger’s commanding, debonair, drunken, d-baggy Byron. Specht does exceeding well at merging everything that Mary is here–mother, lover, intellectual, feminist, sister–into a convincing and intelligent portrait. She and Gundy have enough chemistry to set up a convincing romance and give the play a happy, romantic ending…except for Claire, but nothing here hints at her tragic future. Director Krista D’Agostino has put together a witty and literate production that brings life to some of literature’s most noted and notorious figures as well as the genesis of one of its most important texts.