I am deep in the bowels of a mausoleum, my eyes locked behind a blindfold and my gloved hands shoved deep inside something squishy and very wet. (Is it intestines? The chest cavity?) I strain to figure out what the noises in front of me might mean. (Is that ripping skin? Is that a bunsen burner turning on?) All I know for certain is that I am lost in the memories of the true creator of all of this, Mary Shelley. And I fear there is much more horror yet to come for it’s alive.
It’s Alive advertises itself as a “Frankenstein intimate immersive experience.” That description is both accurate and a vast understatement for one of my favorite experiences this Halloween. It’s Alive is far more than a Frankenstein story. It is the story of how Frankenstein came to be. It is the story of why Mary Shelley felt compelled to write about a mad scientist and his poor creation. Best of all, it is a fantastic immersive experience with so many characters and storylines that multiple viewings still won’t catch everything.
It’s Alive begins at the moment Mary Shelley learns of her husband’s death from a boating accident. Because of plague fears at the time, Percy Shelley’s body is cremated. All Mary Shelley receives to bury is Percy’s heart which refused to burn. With that startling piece of emotional imagery in her hands, (more startling still because it’s an actual historical fact,) Mary begins to mourn.
But it’s far more than her husband she grieves for, and It’s Alive delves into the full weight of both Mary and Percy’s histories. Audiences break apart and weave together as they traverse the massive Mountain View Mausoleum, interacting with everyone involved in the creation of Frankenstein. Mary’s sisters whisk individual members off to have a private scene in the darkness. A pair of the audience digs up body parts by a grave outside. A handful spies on Dr. Polidori professing his love to a married woman. For two hours, the show weaves its audience in and out of moments of these peoples’ lives in a way that feels like a combination of ghost story and gothic ballet. By its completion, each audience member will understand exactly why Mary’s tears fall so deeply at yet another moment of grief.
It’s Alive works on every level possible. The writing (from John Armstrong and Devon Armstrong) perfectly combines the style of Shelley and Byron’s poetry and Mary’s novel. And yet, it remains very accessible for modern audiences thanks to director Devon Armstrong’s very smart staging and choices for when to have characters directly interact with audiences. Moreover, a show like this requires exceptional choreographing of its audience so that each member gets a full experience with no wasted time. The first version of this show at the Heritage Center in Los Angeles did this well; this version has perfected that timing into an art form. I was brought through nearly every corner and floor of the mausoleum and never did I feel like I was waiting for anything or anyone.
The cast of It’s Alive also does a stellar job throughout, with every actor working in top form to bring these historical figures to life. Chanel Castañeda effortlessly shifts between the true happiness of Mary in love to the heart-wrenching grief of her loss and captures both perfectly. Jahnavi Alyssa’s portrayal of Claire Clairemont displayed raw grief in such a visceral way it is spellbinding. The deeply sad story of Harriet Shelley (Percy’s first wife) gets an equally (and wonderfully) sad evisceration from Rachel Levy. Alec Gaylord as Percy and James Fowler as Byron capture the egocentrism of those poets and their male-centric “free love” attitudes so well it made me angry at them. Lulu Royce’s version of Fanny was the living embodiment of lost innocence and nearly impossible to watch. Even the one fictional character roaming this performance, Dr. Frankenstein himself, was horrifically presented by Robert Schaefer in a wonderfully dark, twisted persona that drags people off to do monstrous things.
It’s Alive is the perfect example of great immersive theater. It brings a well-crafted and well-executed show to a wonderful location. It imbues the production with a talented cast that knows how to draw their audience ever deeper into their tale. One can hope that shows like these might even become a holiday tradition, for you could do no better for a Halloween night than fall into this exploration of the truth behind the fiction of Frankenstein. For as many of the characters here say, without these people and the life they gave Mary Shelley, the creation would never have been born.
It’s Alive has four more shows this weekend, but only the Saturday at 9PM show has tickets remaining. Tickets are $60 and can be found here. Contact the organizers for any waiting list if you want to try another slot.