Sunday, February 5, 2017

‘Lightning’ to strike at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center this Thursday!

‘Lightning’ to strike Cultural Arts Center

Lit Live mounts play based on ‘Frankenstein’ creation

By Michael Aushenker

A creation story about the ultimate creation story marks the latest Lit Live production at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center.
“And Lightning Struck: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Creation,” which runs Feb. 9 through 12, tells the story of how Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sparked the idea for her novel, “Frankenstein,” one of literature’s great archetypal stories.
Playwright Robert Weibezahl wrote the original script for “Lightning,” to be helmed by Simi resident Austin Robert Miller, a 21-year-old actor making his directorial debut.

‘It’s alive!’

The year is 1831, and Matthews, a visitor from the West, drops by Shelley with a request: to write the introduction for a new printing of her best-selling 1818 novel, “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.” Matthews tells the widow that he is interested “not the story of the creature itself but the story of how you came to create it.”
Shelley shares with the visitor her memories of the strange, stormy night in 1817 when a group of friends—Shelley, then-husband Percey Shelley, Lord George Byron and John Polidori—tucked inside an English mansion, engaged in a contest to come up with the best ghost story. Not a spoiler, but as suggested by the play’s title (not to mention history!), Mary Shelley won the gambit by a longshot.
Shelley’s now nearly 200-year-old masterwork surely ranks among the most influential pieces of literature of all time—having anticipated a roster of Gothic tales from Polidori’s “The Vampyre” to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
In the pop culture, Shelley’s central themes of man playing God, science gone amuck, and reanimating the dead have inspired everything from the 1930s Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” movies and Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy “Young Frankenstein” to “The Munsters,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Robocop.”

Preview of things to come

On Jan. 11, in the basement of the Cultural Arts Center, Miller led his cast through an intimate reading. The dry run commenced following an introduction by Simi Valley Arts Commissioner Steven Hayes. 
A Simi resident of 53 years, Hayes formed Lit Live in 2014. Including “Lightning,” the company has mounted five works to date, beginning with “The Dark Heart of Poe,” based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, in Miller portrayed a young Poe.
“And Lightning Struck” stars Kay Capasso as Shelley, Evan Smith as Byron, Jennifer Ridgway as Younger Mary, Alyssa Villaire as Shelley’s half-sister Claire, Schafer Bourne as Victor Frankenstein and Tom Mesmer as Frankenstein’s creature.
“It’s one of the more eloquent scripts that I have read,” said Cole Wagner, who portrays both Matthews and Polidori. “Robert beautifully tackles the intellectual (spirit) of the era.”
Following the reading, Mesmer, who relocated to Simi four years ago after 20 years in Hollywood, expressed his excitement for Miller as director. As actors, Mesmer and Miller had played older and younger versions of Hank Williams respectively for a jukebox musical.
“He has that confidence already,” Mesmer said. “This is right up his alley.”
Mesmer is no stranger to playing iconic characters, having portrayed everyone from the titular messiah in the Art Center’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the monstrous half of “Beauty and the Beast.”
For “Lightning,” Mesmer turned to Shelley’s novel for inspiration on how to portray Frankenstein’s creation, eschewing the more pop-culture interpretations as a slurring, inarticulate brute with neck electrodes lumbering around on platform boots. Come Feb. 9, Mesmer’s creature will appear zombie-ish, possessing cloudy eyes, long hair, bare feet and a cloak.
“He’s a like a sponge,” Mesmer said. “He becomes hyper-intellectual. So much that it hurts him.”

Literary liberties taken

“I’ve always been more fascinated with the back story,” said Weibezahl, who described these personages as wealthy, intellectual “19th-century hippies.”  
“Byron was like a rock star,” Weibezahl continued, while Shelley was only 19 when she hatched the “Frankenstein” idea and 21 when she wrote it. 
Shelley proves quite quotable in Weibezahl’s play. At one point, she describes Victor to Matthews as “a visionary and a coward.” At another, Capasso as Shelley says, “I prefer the reality of today over the possibilities of tomorrow.”
“I created the structure. Some of the dialogue was quoted from letters,” said Weibezahl.
That structure includes intercutting between Capasso’s older version of Mary Shelley, circa 1831, and Ridgway’s Younger Mary, circa 1817. More scenes with Frankenstein and his creature appear in the play’s second act, when creator and creation philosophically go mano-a-mano.
After Miller’s mother, executive producer Brenda Miller, approached Weibezahl with the play idea in summer 2015, the playwright, a Thousand Oaks resident of nearly 17 years, embarked on writing it.
“He took that idea and he made something very beautiful,” Hayes said.
Weibezahl fine-tuned the script after an initial reading last summer. By October 2016, the production held auditions at Thousand Oaks’ Bridge Academy and North Hollywood’s Madeline Clark Studio.
Long before snagging the lead, Capasso, who kept a dossier on Shelley during rehearsals, held a fascination for the author, having seen a National Theater Live production of “Frankenstein” (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) eight times.
“Her mother was a huge feminist before it was really a thing,’ Capasso said.
Weibezahl did employ artistic license writing “Lightning.” While Shelley wrote a preface to her 1831 second edition, Matthews is made up.
“He is what I would imagine an educated, middle-class publisher (and Shelley fan) of the era would be,” said Weibezahl, who also parallels in his play the inextricable link between Victor and monster with that of Shelley and “Frankenstein,” “bound together forever,” as Matthews states.
Cole Wagner, who portrays both Matthews and Polidori, feels that, two centuries later, Shelley’s source material remains timeless.
“Every year, the fan base gets stronger,” Wagner said. “One-hundred years from now, people will still be talking about it.”

“And Lightning Struck: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Creation,” runs Feb. 9-12 at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 E. Los Angeles Ave. For information/tickets, visit