The inspirations that ignited Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s mind are alive and perfectly shady in this world premiere musical.
Where to begin when so much of this show begs for praise? Its music is epic. Its premise profound. Its story the source of a legend. Its characters achingly real, relatable, and droll.
Monsters of the Villa Diodati romanticizes and imagines a moment in history that has mythic grandeur —for the on goings and interactions of contemporaneous literary giants Shelley, Byron, and Wollstonecraft in the summer of 1816 unleash the fury that will give the world Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and, eventually, Dracula.
One stormy night that summer in the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, Lord Byron (Sam Ludwig), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Alan Naylor), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Susan Derry), Dr. John Polidori (David Landstrom), and Claire Clairmont (Catherine Purcell)—Mary’s stepsister—read ghost stories beside a fire before challenging one another to write their own. As Mary, a keen observer with fierce intellect, struggles with her inner issues and fears (Percy’s philandering, Byron’s misogyny, Polidori’s advances, and Claire’s beauty), she fashions her story from both human travail and a distrust of scientific progress.
Written by Matt Conner (Music/Lyrics) and Stephen Gregory Smith (Book/Lyrics), who also adapted The Turn of the Screw for Creative Cauldron’s “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages” in 2015, Monsters is accurate. At least according to Wikipedia: Percy’s a free-loving vegetarian, Byron’s a bisexual with a clubfoot, Mary and Claire are hardly friends, and Polidori is suicidal.
Doesn’t exactly scream musical material does it?
Yet its mix of rock riffs and operatic timbre overlay melodic numbers with seismic emotional cores to powerful effect. Both genres intensify the best songs: “Monster,” “What Do You Want?,” “Bring Me to Life,” “Directions for John,” and “What Now, What Next?.”
The central performance belongs to Sam Ludwig. He dominates nearly every scene as the antagonistic Byron, who incites each of his companions—directly or indirectly, intentionally or through dismissiveness—to unearth their inner, self-destructive demons while he shrugs off his own monsters with the carelessness of a man touched by wealth and early fame. Things none of his companions had in 1816.
Byron is an oversexed, lame, cheeky miscreant who idolizes Napoleon, seduces Percy, casts aside Polidori, and corrupts Claire. And yet he’s so yummy! Like the bad boy you should never romance but lose your innocence to anyway, only to find heartbreak at the end of a rainbow you tried to paint. With love. That he’s incapable of giving; it’s a dark way for trust to die but I’d choose it every time just to lick Byron’s boot. And this is exactly how Catherine Purcell plays her love struck Claire, who, stalks Byron down to that Villa and lives to old age with palpable reminders of unreturned affection.
Ludwig’s Byron radiates magnetic gravitational fields that draw even the hater Mary in as they dual in their duet “Monster.” Sure, it’s their mutual kiss-off, but we all know what they say about love and hate; Derry and Ludwig have cherry-red chemistry that’s only outdone by Ludwig and Naylor’s optimistic, sweetly naïve Percy as they take long, languid boat rides. Just to talk. You know.
This is Mary’s show—a telling of her triumphant literary moment, which she reminds you of as the narrator in the ending sequence, declaring “She who holds the pen last, wins!”—but John Polidori also crafted something great at Villa Diodati: modern vampire folklore.
Overshadowed by Mary and with his story “The Vampyre: A Tale” originally attributed to Byron, Polidori is a literary footnote (and even though he’s also uncle to the Rossetti line—Dante and Christina—of writers). David Landstrom inspires both sadness and disgust in his good doctor, who is painted as a lonely depraved figure once abused by Catholic Priests. His life was truly terrifying. He pays a high price to escape it.
Percy, Mary, and Byron’s fates are infamous, but Polidori is an obscure talent, nearly forgotten, making Landstrom’s performance the most suspenseful and surprising.
MONSTERS OF THE VILLA DIODATI
January 28 – February 21
at Arts Space Falls Church
410 South Maple Avenue
Falls Church, VA
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Thurdays thru Sundays
Check for discounts
In chronicling Mary Shelley’s origination of Frankenstein, Monsters, by extension, also wrestles with the ethics of progress and technology: the onset of electricity leading to galvanism (or electrophysiology), the justification of grave-robbing for medical advancement, and the egomania of men believing they can cheat death. Each touch Mary’s intellect and present quandaries the future cannot ignore. Much of what Mary writes is science fiction, not fantasy that has, in some ways, become science fact. Man now clones, harvests body parts from the dead to repair the living, manipulates stem cells, and grows embryos using three parents. It all feels a bit Frankenstein, no?
Monsters doesn’t make any grand ethical stance, but when you put Frankenstein’s creation front and center, it is hard to forget what meddling with life/death can beget.
My grievances are small and flagged because I did see a couple of people who appeared bored, but the standing ovation-ers easily outnumbered them. The show was a tad long with an extensive exposition that, while buoyed by excellent music, could drag on if you aren’t that interested in learning how this motley crew became summer bunkmates.
Connor and Smith know how to brave the dark and dusty spaces of the human soul and, no matter how twisted a tale, imbue it with compassion to invoke sympathy. Their propensity to celebrate the gothic aside, they’ve chosen a piece of history as relevant today for its examination of the science fiction and horror genres’ legacies as it is for the insight it provides into what drives human creativity and its cost.
“Creation takes it’s toll,” the cast sings, “You dip the quill into your soul and doubt begins before the ink is dry.”
Creation is not cheap. Frankenstein taught us that. Conner and Smith learned it well. And, theatre is the bolder and better for it.
Monsters of the Villa Diodati . Written by Matt Conner (Music/Lyrics) and Stephen Gregory Smith (Book/Lyrics) . Directed by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith . Cast: Susan Derry, David Landstrom, Sam Ludwig, Alan Naylor, and Catherine Purcell . Muscians: Warren (Music Supervisor and Orchestrator), Chip Carvell (Guitar), Garrett Jones (Piano/Conductor), and Dakota Kaylor (Percussion) . Production: Scenic Design: Margie Jarvis . Costume Design: Alison Johnson . Lighting Design: Lynn Joslin . Lighting Technician: Joseph Lovins . Stage Carpenter and Scenic Artist: Bill Abel . Stage Carpenter: Melbourne Jenkins . Stage Manager and Prop Coordinator: Chris Riherd . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.