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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Frankenstein - Playing with Fire
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's coverage of Minnesota Theater Awards and reviews of Last Stop on Market Street, Her's a Queen, Is God Is, for colored girls... Once, Dial M for Murder, West of Central, Awake and Sing! and Little Women


Ryan Colbert, Jason Rojas, and Zachary Fine
Photo by Dan Norman
Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein, or The New Prometheus," first published in 1818 when the author was only twenty years old, is considered a masterpiece, combining gothic horror and romance genres. It is also considered by many to be the first science fiction story, as its title character deliberately labors to combine materials and energy sources to create a new life form. Frankenstein's creation is not the result of magic or intervention from a deity, but of his use of the laws of science to accomplish his own ends.

The sub-title, "The New Prometheus," refers to parallels between Frankenstein's creation of the monster and the unintended carnage it releases with Prometheus, the Titan in Greek mythology who created man in the image of the gods, but disobeyed Zeus by delivering to man fire and its great power to transform the elements. Barbara Fields' dramatization of Frankenstein, a commission from the Guthrie Theater that she titled Frankenstein - Playing with Fire, alludes again to the grave risks in tampering with the elements of life. Fields' play premiered at the Guthrie in the 1986-1987 season and is now enjoying a revival on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage. The production is icy, not only in the sense that it opens in a frigid ice field on the top of the Earth, but in the absence of any tenderness or good will. There are emotions to be sure, expressed by man and monster, with intensity bordering on histrionic, but nothing that moves the heart or strikes a chord of goodness within either being.

Since Shelley unleashed the monster, there have been many variations of the Frankenstein story in print, on stage, and in film. The premise they share is that a brilliant scientist, Victor Frankenstein, is inspired to construct a replica human being out of inert anatomical parts and then to animate his creation with an energy force, typically a surge of electricity. In essence, he creates life. However, once his creation comes to life, its monstrous qualities disgust and terrify Victor, causing him to abandon his project, and in so doing, pushes his creation to aggressively seek to understand itself, the world it has awakened into, and what it need do to survive. A vicious cycle ensues: the monster's behavior invokes the wrath of man, pushing the monster to ever more violence.

Frankenstein - Playing with Fire gives us two pairs of Frankenstein and his creation. We first encounter them at the North Pole, where both are starving, frozen and near mad. Frankenstein has spent years in pursuit of the Creature (as it is titled), in order to destroy it before it inflicts more death upon the world. The creature understands this, and is prepared to be killed—but first, the two engage in asking each other questions in order to understand the other. Their answers introduce us to the second pair, Frankenstein, first as the boy Victor, who is traumatized by the shrieks of his beloved mother in labor and her subsequent death while delivering his brother. Later, Victor is off to college where his interest in natural science leads to his unnatural obsession—at one point he describes it as the desire to bring life to this earth without inflicting pain, like the pain that his mother endured and that took her from him. Eventually, his work bears fruit and his creation, now called Adam, arises, but in a form that, true to form, horrifies Victor.

The remainder of the play gives us the story from both Victor's and Adam's perspectives. Each agonizes: Victor from Adam's horrific deeds and from the guilt of having created such a monster; Adam from his maker's refusal to take responsibility for his creation, who needs food, warmth, affection, and to understand why he was made. These seem like basic human needs, but to Victor, Adam is a monster, not a human with human needs. Early on, the Creature quotes Milton's "Paradise Lost," one of the books from which he learned to read, "Did I request the maker from my clay to mold me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?" The words lay down the recurring imperative that humankind take responsibility for what we create and for how we transform the world.

The play is markedly intelligent and provocative in promoting our thinking about these issues. But it is seldom engaging, and never causes us to care about the tortured characters on stage. Director Michael Locher has drawn out the issues the play seems to want us to wrestle with, but without prompting us to care about the characters, the issues become intellectual exercise, devoid of fire.

This is not to fault the actors, who all deliver solid performances. It is fascinating to see Jason Rojas as Adam, brought to life fully grown but with no knowledge of what life is about, how to feed himself, where to live; he is an innocent primitive. Compare Rojas' characterization to Elijah Alexander as the elder Creature, who, having learned to read and absorb great ideas, while learning about the human capacity for cruelty, is still savage on the inside, but has tamed his inner beast, all but to have an answer to the question "why did you make me?."

Zachary Fine as the grizzled, elder Frankenstein conveys the agonizing paradox of having at last found his quarry, and yet know that it is he who is defeated, for the creation he so feverishly worked for robbed him of love or any other purpose in life, but to put an end to it. As Victor, Ryan Colbert is especially potent in portraying the anguish he feels as he hears his mother's pain, and his obsession to remove the need for such pain. We see him become more haggard, distraught, and desperate to erase the monster he created from this world, as he transforms himself into a monstrous version of the youth he had been.

Robert Dorfman is winning as Professor Krempe, one of Victor's college instructors who first discourages his protégé from pursuing his unorthodox project, then later tries to insinuate himself into sharing in the credit for it. Amelia Pedlow plays Elizabeth, a thankless role, as Victor's love interest who gets the short end of his attention and the long end of the creature's fury. Nonetheless, Pedlow brings warmth and the only glimmer of heart in the entire play to her performance.

What dominates the production is the stage set piece, set designer's Michael Locher's strikingly beautiful huge chrome-sculptured iceberg on which Frankenstein and Creature climb about as their verbal sparring goes on, and on. It certainly adds interest, giving us something to look at in the absence of any real action between the two protagonists, but do we really want the scenery to compensate for a lack of action on stage? Raquel Barreto has costumed the characters well, with the matching blue coats worn by Frankenstein and the Creature adding some warmth to their cold surroundings, and the ornately decorous attire worn by Victor as an affluent young man is a great contrast to the decayed state of his garb when he has reached the North Pole. Cat Tate Starmer's lighting design creates eerie northern skies, and adds foreboding to Victor's laboratory, while Cliff Caruthers has provided sound and composed incidental music that underscores the play's bleak atmosphere.

For the challenging arguments it lays out before us, and for some outstanding stage design work, Frankenstein - Playing with Fire is worth our attention, and you certainly will be impressed by the hard-working actors. Just don't go expecting to have strong emotions about the piece. For all the gothic horror and romance that Mary Shelley set out in print, Frankenstein - Playing with Fire provides neither goosebumps nor passion.

Frankenstein - Playing with Fire, through October 27, 2018, at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets from $29.00 to $78.00. Seniors (65+) and full time College Students (with ID) - $3.00 and $6.00 discounts. Public Rush for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $25.00 - $30,00, cash or check only. Gateway tickets for eligible low income patrons, $5.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Playwright: Barbara Field, from the novel by Mary Shelley; Director: Rob Melrose; Set Design: Michael Locher; Costume Design: Raquel Barreto; Lighting Design: Cat Tate Starmer; Sound Design/Composer: Cliff Caruthers; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Movement Directors: Jonathan Beller and Beth Brooks; Fight Director: U. Aaron Preusse; Intimacy Consultant: Lauren Keating; Stage Managers: Chris A. Code and Jamie J. Kranz; Assistant Stage Manager: Jane E. Heer; Assistant Director: Tracey Maloney; Casting Consultants: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound).

Cast: Elijah Alexander (Creature), Ryan Colbert (Victor), Robert Dorfman (Krempe/Old Man), Zachary Fine (Frankenstein), Amelia Pedlow (Elizabeth), Jason Rojas (Adam).


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