REVIEW: Hideous Progeny (LiveWire Chicago)

The devil’s in the details:
Anachronisms mar historical drama

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LiveWire Chicago Theatre presents
       
Hideous Progeny
  
By Emily Dendinger
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., Chicago (map)
Through Sept. 26  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

When you’re creating a work of historical fiction, the most important part lies in getting your history straight. Lacking grounding in its period and riddled with historical anachronisms that distract from the drama, LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s Hideous Progeny, a new play by Emily Dendinger now at Storefront Theater in the Loop, loses coherency.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_05 Set at the Lake Geneva, Switzerland, house rented by George Gordon Byron during the summer following the Romantic poet’s self-imposed exile from England, Hideous Progeny focuses on the probably apocryphal tale of the horror-story competition said to have inspired the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was staying near Byron with her lover, poet Percy Byshe Shelley.

It starts out well, with Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s lovely period set — a library scene with a tall, laddered bookcase, an upright piano, a small writing desk, a billiards table and brocade curtains framing leaded-glass windows from which flashes of lightning suggest the unpleasant weather of "The Year Without Summer.” Yet that’s all that evokes the early 19th century. Little about the play’s costumes, dialogue or acting brings to mind British gentry of the 1800s.

Hideous Progeny takes place in 1816, the height of the British Regency, a highly distinctive period when Beau Brummell dictated London fashions. Not only do Laura Kollar‘s costumes rarely flatter their wearers, they appear historically incorrect. Shelley looks like a 1950s frat boy. It’s unlikely that any Englishwoman of the time, no matter how bohemian, would have sported nose jewelry or an ankle chain, as Mary Godwin does here.

Nor would any lady of 1816 have worn a dress with a zipper, which had yet to be invented and wasn’t on the market until after the Universal Fastener Company was organized in Chicago in 1894. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble over minor costuming details, but it becomes impossible to overlook this gaffe in a scene during which the dress is unzipped.

The script, too, contains its share of historical slipups. Byron is constantly drinking "merlot," which the real poet could not have done in Switzerland in 1816. Varietal names for wine were a New World marketing ploy that began in the 1970s — even today, European wines are largely labeled by geographic region — and the merlot grape was used only as a secondary blending variety until late in the 19th century. It puzzles me why the playwright, deciding she needed to mention a specific wine over and over again, didn’t trouble to look up one fitting her period.

Dendinger also plays with the historical facts of her characters. In another peculiar error, Shelley claims to possess a title, like Lord Byron’s.

Byron supposedly misses his young daughter "whose mother has taught her to confuse the meanings of the words ‘papa’ and ‘Satan,’" and expresses his hopes that she’ll join him if his wife "refuses the divorce." Yet in fact, Byron most reluctantly agreed to legal separation from his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, and their child would still have been a babe in arms whom he’d not seen since a month after her birth the previous December.

Byron wrote poignantly of his daughter Ada in the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage," but no evidence suggests he ever tried to gain custody, despite English law giving fathers all rights. The play deals with this by hinting at dark accusations Lady Byron might have brought against him. but never mentions them directly. (Byron was accused in his lifetime of committing incest with his half sister. It’s also rumored that he was bisexual and engaged in sodomy with both male and female partners.)

 

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There’s nothing wrong with altering history for the sake of drama … if it works. This doesn’t ring true. The arrogant Byron of this play seems unlikely to pine for an infant he’d barely seen, particularly given his callousness when his current bedmate turns up pregnant.

While those familiar with the subjects will be troubled by the play’s lapses from history, Dendinger offers little help as to who’s who for those who don’t already know the saga of this menage. Besides Godwin and Shelley, Byron hosts his private physician, John William Polidori, depicted as a klutz with a crush on the Swiss maidservant, Elise, and Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Godwin’s younger stepsister, with whom the disdainful lord is sleeping. Clairmont has possibly also been intimate with Shelley — at any rate, she’s lived with him and her sister ever since the then 17-year-old Godwin ran off with the still-married Shelley just over two years previously.

Although some of the dialogue comes directly from the historic writers’ published words, Jessica Hutchinson directs her cast — Patrick King as Polidori, Tom McGrath as Shelley, Danielle O’Farrell as Clairmont, John Taflan as Byron and Hilary Williams as Godwin — as if they were playing in a modern soap opera. Only Madeline Long, as the French-speaking Elise, ever seems to shed a contemporary American persona.

If the out-of-period elements were meant to convey some connection to the present day, it’s too subtle.  The production’s video trailers suggest that a spicier contemporary concept might once have been envisioned, yet the effect we get in the production as staged is that they spent so much money on the set, they couldn’t afford appropriate costumes, dramaturgy or a dialect coach.

LiveWireChicagoTheatre_HideousProgeny_08 Godwin, pregnant with her third child by Shelley, spends the play glowering, moody and jealous of Shelley’s relationship with Clairmont and prone to verbal jousting with Byron, who tends to bait her about her ur-feminist mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of "A Vindication on the Rights of Woman." She’s still troubled over the death of her first, premature baby and rants about herself as a "death bride." Byron, however, forms the centerpiece of the play, portrayed as a morose and self-centered jerk. Shelley never really comes to life at all.

Nor does "Frankenstein." While watching writers write makes for boring theater, we get very little of what inspired the classic novel or Godwin’s thoughts as she created it, save for an intriguing scene in which Godwin and Polidori repeat an experiment by 18th-century biologist Luigi Galvani showing the effects of electrical impulses on a frog.

Besides "Frankenstein," the fateful summer of 1816 brought us Polidori’s seminal novel, "The Vampyre"; Shelley’s early ode, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"; and Byron’s eerie "Darkness"; all of which get short shrift from the playwright.

In the end, we’re left with a jumbled slice of meaningless, not-very-accurate life.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
  

 

  

        
        

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REVIEW: Lower Debt (Livewire Chicago Theatre)

Down in the dumps..

Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_7

Livewire Chicago presents:

Lower Debt

 

written by Joshua Aaron Weinstein
directed by
Rebekah Scallet
at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
through April 4th
(more info)

by Keith Ecker 

As has been pointed out by many smarter than me, it is worse to be the recipient of apathy than the target of hatred. That said, I don’t hate LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s  world premier production of Lower Debt. No, instead I just couldn’t care less about it, Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_5and it appeared that neither did anyone in the play. And this is supposed to be an “Everyman” tale?

The play’s got a solid synopsis. I’ll give it that. It’s set in the beginning of the 21st century, resembling a time that is as economically uncertain as present day but personal suffering is considerably worse, where a house is a tent tucked away in an abandoned building. CW (Brian P. Cicirello) is a copywriter at an ad firm. As we learn through video flashbacks, CW is laid off and left to simultaneously sell a screenplay and beg for change on the street, which we see in a scene where CW rambles to himself about pennies and dimes. The clip is so pregnant with self-importance I found myself rolling my eyes at the screen.

Eventually CW appears on stage in the tent town that nomadic bums Claude (Malcolm Callan), his wife Val (Melissa diLeonardo) and her sister Wendell (Annie Rix) have established. Claude is a bossy, hot-headed man who is protective of his property. He’s not hesitant to hit or push CW, which he does frequently. Meanwhile, Wendell takes a liking to CW, a feeling that is reciprocated. We know this because CW tells Wendell in hushed whispers that she doesn’t have to stay in Claude’s compound. It is a cliché love.

The tent town is also inhabited by a pill-pushing self-described pharmacist named Ames (Tamara Anderson), a kind-hearted cab driver named Rash (Josh Johnson), his dying lover Leah (Miriam Reuter) and a bum (Noah Lepawsky) whose periodic slips into existential ponderings are about as deep as Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts”.

Nothing much really happens throughout the play. A lot of people look angry at one another and walk from tent to tent. Alcohol is drunk. People occasionally leave the compound and then come back. Near the end of the play, there’s a twist, one that will jerk you awake because it involves a gun. But don’t get too excited. It’s laughably convoluted.

There’s little to no characterization. We as the audience don’t get to know any of these people. When some die, we just kind of shrug it off. Sure, there’s plenty of exposition about what life used to be like and who we all used to be before things went to hell. But it’s all talk and no action.

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Speaking of talk, the dialogue in Lower Debt is atrocious. It plays like a transcribed conversation between high school stoners. The playwright, Joshua Aaron Weinstein (aka LiveWire’s Executive Director), obviously wants to tackle some big-picture concepts, but needs to learn to do it with more finesse. You can discuss life, death, society and materialism in a play, but you have to find some way to interweave it into interesting characters and plot. Otherwise it just sits there for everyone to stare at like a pet stain.

With no characterization and clunky speech, it is difficult to place much blame on the actors for their lackluster performances. They aren’t bad – just flat. Glenn Proud stands out the most as Claude’s cop brother, Damon, probably because he’s one of the only characters who doesn’t talk like a freshman philosophy major.

The use of video, which is completely dropped in the second half of the play, serves little purpose. The clips provide flashback about CW, but a clever director could just as easily stage these scenes with much greater effect. Also, the audio on the video is too low. Though sitting in the front row, I still had a very difficult time hearing. Hopefully this is just a technical sound issue with an easy fix.

Lower Debt is meant to be a commentary on contemporary times, exploring themes of community, ownership, loss and hope. But without interesting characters or a solid story to ground these lofty topics, the picture gets fuzzy and the audience’s attention spans and patience are tested.

 

Rating:

 

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