BWW Review: Electrifying MONSTERS OF THE VILLA DIODATI Premieres at Creative Cauldron
The second installment in Creative Cauldron's "Bold New Works for Intimate Stages" initiative, the new musical MONSTERS OF THE VILLA DIODATI transports audiences to a famous gathering of 19th-century writers on Lake Geneva during a dark and stormy summer. This atmospheric production reveals the origin story of two legendary Gothic monsters, John Polidori's The Vampyre and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, while exploring their creators' own inner monsters.
Following their critically successful 2015 premiere of Helen Hayes Award-nominated THE TURN OF THE SCREW at Creative Cauldron, creators Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith again apply their expertise in Gothic ghost stories to MONSTERS OF THE VILLA DIODATI. The tale begins with the central figure, Mary Shelley (Susan Derry, also of THE TURN OF THE SCREW), as she reflects on that 1816 summer at the Villa Diodati. She conjures our cast of characters: the darkly charismatic host, Lord Byron (Helen Hayes Award winner Sam Ludwig); Byron's quirky personal physician Dr. John Polidori (David Landstrom); Shelley's lover, the writer Percy Shelley (Helen Hayes award winner Alan Naylor); and Mary Shelley's lively half-sister, Claire Clairmont (Catherine Purcell). Together they experiment with free love and self-expression, and in response to a challenge by Byron, they channel their experiences in a competition to compose chilling horror stories.
Even as the characters fall in and out of various romantic entanglements, the cast's chemistry is strong enough to keep the soap opera aspects believable. Act One suffers a bit from slower pacing, but the plot accelerates in Act Two as the writers weave their stories and face the consequences of their hedonism. Conner and Smith have inserted irreverent humor, physical comedy, and double entendres throughout, keeping the audience engaged.
Conner's music cohesively incorporates diverse elements, from classical counterpoint to contemporary rock. Traditional touches give the production an accurate sense of time and place, but electric guitar riffs ensure we can sense the danger of the unfolding events and compare these literary figures to actual rock stars as they dodge nosy tourists and engage in scandalous activities that make the tabloids.
Perhaps the most effective musical numbers are those that highlight the entire talented ensemble (such as "What Now, What Next?" and the clever "Telescope"). Derry proves to be a sympathetic narrator, but her superb voice could benefit from slightly more projection. Landstrom gives an impressive performance as the perpetually lonely Polidori in some of the play's most emotional moments ("Directions for John"). Ludwig's vocals shine brightest in rock-tinged songs such as "What Do You Want?," Byron's invitation to a wild summer on the lake.
As advertised, the venue is intimate, which is to the production's advantage. Not only are we physically and emotionally closer to the actors, but the minimalist stage lends itself to creative use of props and scenery. The scenic design (Margie Jervis) makes innovative use of the small space, and the costumes (Alison Johnson) are both beautiful and functional, sometimes morphing into parts of the set itself (for example, Purcell's dress becomes the sails of a boat). Some costume changes recall 1960s bohemia, appropriate for this particular summer of love. The lighting design (Lynn Joslin) indicates the passage of time and evokes an eerie mood through simulated candlelight, windows, and lake waves.
The production culminates in a meditation on what it means to be an artist. Over that tumultuous summer, the writers search for inspiration, experience the pains of creation, and ultimately face monsters inside themselves which are more horrific than even the Vampyre or Frankenstein's monster. The result of all this is not a dismal conclusion, but rather an inspirational takeaway: we are known by what we leave behind.
With its vibrant cast, electric visuals, and thought-provoking themes, MONSTERS OF THE VILLA DIODATI is a must-see for fans of Gothic literature and anyone who appreciates an intimate theatrical experience.
Running time: approximately 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
MONSTERS OF THE VILLA DIODATI plays through February 21st, 2016, at Creative Cauldron at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 South Maple Avenue, Falls Church, VA 22046. Tickets can be purchased on www.creativecauldron.org or by calling 703-436-9948.