Dallas — The bard of bards observed that “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.” When I watch skilled and passionate solo performers do their intense and compelling shows, I’m reminded more than ever that we are all constantly creating and performing our many roles. One man in his life plays many roles, Shakespeare continues. What’s cool about the solo artist is that he or she can be so many characters in one brief 50-minute span that the feat makes acting seem even more a magical sleight-of-hand affair than usual.
Carla Cackowski, an LA-based solo performer with a number of autobiographically based shows to her credit, takes on the persona of Frankenstein’s creator in The Seriously Neurotic Dream of Mary Shelley at the Dallas Solo Fest. Cackowski steps into Mary’s skin (and white nightgown) at a crisis in her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the brilliant Romantic poet, and father of her four children, three of whom died as children.
The basis of the piece is historic. Percy’s still married to his first wife, Mary’s exhausted by the European tour they’ve embarked upon with her “aestheically pleasing but stupid” stepsister Claire and Lord Byron, the gorgeous club-footed poet and lady’s man. One child is dead and the living one is driving Mary nuts with his needy squalling, and, to top it all, Byron has challenged everybody to come up with a scary story to tell the group on their long nights together before TV and Facebook.
Cackowski paces back and forth from a card table equipped with a white feathered quill, a silvery Mac laptop, and half-opened boxes of Ritz crackers and animal cookies. Mary’s frustrated and time is running short. “I’ve written nothing. I have no creative energy to write anything—I’m screwed,” she says, the lines around her mouth tightening and her broad forehead glowing. She admits she nibbles and cries alternately when she can’t write. She’s steamed about Percy flirting with Claire and put-off when her husband encourages her to flirt back when Byron gives her a feel. She’s all for doing as she pleases—she just doesn’t consider love all that “free.”
Ponytail swinging, and the ruffle on her nightgown bouncing as she strides, Cackowski looks up at the audience, making eye contact with first one and then another. “You’re Minerva,” she says, surprised. Then she recognizes other “faces” from Mary Shelley’s past, eventually deciding she’s having a lucid dream. Of course, “it could be that vat of opium-laced wine I drank last night.”
When she starts to gets off on a track about Shelley or her dead mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft or her revolutionary father William Godwin, Mary shouts, “No! This is my dream!” She returns to her increasingly desperate attempt to come up with an idea for a scary story.
Hilariously, she flips open the laptop, and in the glow Googles up her own Wikipedia bio, which instantly appears, portrait and all, on a huge screen behind her. Fascinated and horrified, she realizes she’s traveling in time, while the audience is delighted to see such a feat accomplished with such elegant economy!
The wan light from the screen reflects on Mary’s face, as the ghost of her mother suddenly appears. In a completely flattened voice, Mom tells her daughter to stop asking ridiculous questions and ask something she can answer. The dead mother-living daughter conversation is spooky and droll—and a superb byte of solo art.
Cackowski has an Alice-through-the-rabbit-hole look about her. Her combination of wonder at the things of the future and little-girl, foot-stomping fury when she can’t get a good starting place for a story make me like her. “Doesn’t anybody feel sorry for me?” she implores, staring at the audience.
Only one woman held up her hand at the performance attended for this review. That was enough to get Carla/Mary back on her quest to confront the terrors and fears of her past, enough to make many monsters.
» Carla Cackowski's The Seriously Neurotic Dream of Mary Shelley has completed its Dallas SoloFest run.
» Read our Q&A with Cachowski here.
And you can follow our coverage of the 2015 Dallas Solo Fest in our special section, here.