Getting AMPed!

Photo credit: Hunter Canning
Written and performed by Jody Christopherson
Directed by Isaac James Byrne
Presented by Goode Productions at HERE, NYC
December 5-19, 2017

Imagine, if you will, a frog's legs, ending abruptly not in a frog but merely in its spine, carefully cleaned off the flesh that once held it. Next, multiply this image, and picture a chain of these macabre trinkets strung out in an elevated location. Finally, conjure in your mind’s eye a lightning strike that sets those legs twitching and jerking of their own accord. This is the one of the first images with which Jody Christopherson’s new play, AMP, confronts the audience, plunging us into a nineteenth-century stew of galvanism, resurrection men, and tragedy-tinged literary legends.

AMP sees Christopherson reunited with Isaac James Byrne, under whose direction we saw her last fall in The Players Theatre run of Sylvia Milo's The Other Mozart, another one-woman show, in which Christopherson and three other women played Mozart's sister Maria Anna on rotating nights. While AMP shares themes with Milo’s play, with both addressing women's struggle for recognition, particularly in the arts, the former splits its focus between one unknown and one enduringly famous woman. AMP's very first image, immediately preceding that of Luigi Galvani’s frogs, is the recounted dream of a woman (Jody Christopherson) that she was an anatomist entering a theater to perform a public dissection. The recollector of this reverie shortly introduces herself as Mary Godwin, better known to most as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Over the course of the play, Shelley assembles a portrait both of the social and intellectual context in which she wrote her most well known work and of the spectacularly unconventional path of her life. Her father, William Godwin (J.Stephen Brantley), is an admired anti-governance free-thinker and author, while her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (Chloe Dirksen), cemented her own reputation writing in defense of women's equality. Wollstonecraft died after giving birth to her daughter, and the younger Mary pointedly describes growing up motherless as species of being haunted, a sort of perpetual attempt to raise the dead (Victor Frankenstein too is tellingly haunted by his dead mother). While the expectations derived from such a pedigree as Mary's can function as a cage, Christopherson's Mary also tells us that she feels most free at her mother’s graveside. In this household, she immerses herself when young not in children's tales but in mythology, and by the time that she pens Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, she is also familiar with the current fascination with electrical experiments, including Galvani's, on not only amphibian but also human corpses. After her father marries his second wife, another Mary, this new matriarch relocates the family a block away from Newgate prison, whose inmates sometimes ended on the very dissection tables that Mary Shelley dreams of herself presiding over. She carries all of these experiences with her when she decamps to Europe with the doomed Percy Shelley (Ryan McCurdy) and her step-sister Claire, all of them eventually to land up in Geneva with the equally doomed Lord Byron (Jonathan West) and his eating disorder, cutting remarks about women, and sexual relationship with his half-sister. It is there that she ultimately participates in the ghost story contest that sparks the novelistic lives of Victor and his Creature.

During all of this, we encounter the others in Mary's life -- her parents, her husband, Byron -- only as disembodied recorded voices, their words stitched into the fabric of the play like the parts of the dead that make up the Monster. The most significant voice other than Mary’s, however, belongs to Anna (Christopherson), who appears via film clips projected on a wall-sized screen at the rear of the stage. Anna is a cellist and simultaneously a counterbalance to and doppleganger of Mary. Anna has fought a long battle with male rivals, particularly another cellist named Tony, whom she says “blends” better than she does in an orchestra setting. Daughter of a fisherman rather than an intellectual icon, she tries out at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1952 blind auditions, and even then is betrayed by a signifier of her gender despite the concealing screen. Following an incident that she characterizes, not entirely convincingly, as an accident, she is committed to a Massachusetts asylum. Anna’s interactions with the Doctor (Fin Kilgore), glimpsed only briefly and partially onscreen, will perhaps put some audience members in mind of the excellent recent television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, another historically based story featuring a woman who exercises control over the truth that she presents. Of course, even Mary Shelley's oft-cited account of how Frankenstein came to be is likely the product of judicious reshaping and embroidery.

Along with the idea that electrical experiments had revealed the vital principle of life came the idea that electricity might then be able to bring the dead back to life (or at least cure the insane). In AMP, art occupies a similar position, as a vital principle, as an animating electricity. It offers another way of creating life, but it also brings with it danger. It is significant, for instance, that Mary’s quill pen is at one point also a scalpel. She also sometimes drinks from specimen jars, containing a heart, or strips of paper; she observes that women in her orbit seem to commit suicide or meet other bad ends. She discusses what it means to be monstrous, and, under plastic sheeting becomes a kind of corpse on display herself, as well as a monster, the Monster, who seeks, as she puts it, knowledge, humanity, and life. Anna too fits the criteria of monstrousness, though she in perhaps in the end silenced in a way that the monstrous Mary is not.

At a certain juncture, Mary removes her outer nightdress only to replace it with an anatomist’s thick apron, rendering the opening dream a bookend (the artist can of course be seen as a kind of anatomist). That bookend is deeply implicated in questions of gender, and, unsurprisingly, Christopherson's play does excellent work engaging with the gender politics of 19th-century Romanticism and their unfortunate twentieth-century analogs. Christopherson herself is riveting in a demanding onstage role, and makes both Mary and Anna complex and compelling in differing but complementary ways. Anna says that musical notes are not happy or sad; it is our experience of them that is, and, similarly, you don't need to be deeply familiar with Mary Shelley’s biography to enjoy this fantastic production, though you might get some satisfying moments of recognition if you are. AMP is, dare we say, electrifying, and as must-see as even the most anticipated Newgate hanging. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler