Frankenstein: Playing with Fire was originally mounted in the late 1980s by the Guthrie Theater shortly after the publication of the play written by Minnesotan Barbara Field. I saw it then, a fact I mention only as trivia really, as I can’t recall much beyond enjoying it and being impressed by the more graphic flourishes. Still, that earlier production can stand as a point of reference, as this current staging has some retro flair that gives it an ’80s vibe while still feeling terribly current.
Since its publication 200 years ago, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus has drifted in and out of genre and fashion. Some claim it as the original science-fiction novel, others see it as a cornerstone in horror literature, and critics of all stripes dig into it in search of literary riches. You would be hard pressed to find any other work that has inspired such a diverse body of responses. From schlock to high pretense, this tale of artificial life has inspired it all. Of course, which Frankenstein you prefer will inevitably color what you see in the legion of monsters and creators that walk among us. The thing to remember about all of these progeny is that they are all adaptations.
The Guthrie’s current version of the story is based quite solidly in the theater. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as it is as a play, but neither the script nor the staging makes any attempt to mimic any of the famous cinematic or graphical brethren. (I share the opinion of many others that Bernie Wrightson’s illustrated Frankenstein is a masterpiece.) At its core, Frankenstein: Playing with Fire is a conversation between creature and creator. Driven by language and supported by staging, costume, and lighting, this is not the visceral presentation seen elsewhere. This is a drama of ideas and emotion, as much a struggle to balance them as it for the principals to reconcile them. This play wants you to think and feel but doesn’t commit entirely to one over the other. The dialogue brings out some of the unspoken ideas inherent in Shelley’s original story and also digs into the primal emotions of both parent and child. This is not a show during which to daydream, as Field has interlaced piercing insight in between the moments that the original novel is known for. If you think that the play is going down well-worn paths, it is best to pay more attention, as you are likely missing the nuances that have been woven into this work.
For example, Field and director Rob Melrose are clearly aware what Philip K. Dick owes to Frankenstein. With the opening lines “Do you dream? Do you sleep?” delivered on a stage complete with a pattern that recalls an ’80s-tastic vision of VALIS, you can’t miss the parallels to an increasingly important consideration of what it means to create life and what exactly “artificial” intelligence is.
Victor Frankenstein’s mentor, Dr. Krempe (Robert Dorfman), is portrayed in a decidedly lecherous manner, which feels timely in the current #MeToo climate but also draws this play’s many considerations of masculinity into the light. Likewise, Field, Melrose, and the cast don’t let Dr. Frankenstein easily evade the motivations behind his desire to create an artificial man first. After all, science fiction has shown us that more often than not, these mad scientists seek to play god and assuage their loneliness with an artificial woman. There is considerable time given to both Victor (Ryan Colbert), as young Dr. Frankenstein, and the mature Frankenstein’s (Zachary Fine’s) obsession with creating a man and the very complicated relationship he has with the creation.
Frankenstein, of course, is nothing without the creature. In this version, he is played as Creature (Elijah Alexander) and Adam (Jason Rojas), who represent the different stages of his life during the time of the telling. This allows, of course, for both versions of both main characters to all occupy the stage at the same time and show the changes that life has brought to creator and creation. The design of the creature, in both forms, departs from the grotesque or undead treatments of many past iterations and takes a more heroic form not too distinct from the well-maned beefcakes of many a romance novel. The idea that the creature is someone’s fantasy of a man is placed front and center on the Guthrie stage. One could be forgiven for mistaking the final Creature and the final Frankenstein for each other, too. They dress much the same and share a healthy amount of hair. This is completely intentional, of course, and draws their tangled relationship into clear focus at the very moment of the final curtain fall.
This is not the Frankenstein that Gothic horror fans will know. Nor is it the Frankenstein of academically minded science-fiction fans. This is a creation somewhere between and beyond, with nuances that are surprising even if they shouldn’t be. Regardless, it feels something just short of comprehensive, as so much of the sublime matter of Shelley’s novel is deepened and performed. This is not the final word on Frankenstein, but it is a vision full of grief, rage, and despair that is seen all the while from a point of view as cold as the arctic wasteland that it takes as its setting.
After all, tears in the rain are a lot like tears on the ice. The only last as long as the dreamer that sheds them.
You can see Frankenstein: Playing with Fire on the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage through October 27, 2018.