When I saw the first production of Frankenstein—Playing With Fire three decades ago at the old Guthrie Theatre site, it seemed flat. Ho hum. So what. However, when I caught the current revival on the new Guthrie facility on the Mississippi River recently, I felt I was watching a whole new play! What happened? Have I changed so much? Had I not fully comprehended it decades ago? Or that I was getting sentimental over this big bicentennial year of the publication of the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and the wider distribution of last year’s terrific Dakota Fanning biopic titled Mary Shelley?
I scratched my head in the afterglow of a moving theatrical experience and happened across the Renaissance Woman herself, Barbara Field, in the Guthrie lobby—the playwright who first adapted the play from the novel three decades ago. When the legendary gay Guthrie Artistic Director Garland Wright asked her to adapt it, she resisted, but when prodded a bit, she imagined dialogue between Victor Frankenstein and his Creature constructed from body parts robbed from graves. This wasn’t in the novel, but she spirited forth the idea into play form and it emerged as a remarkable meditation on the compulsive lure of scientific experimentation and by a profound metaphorical examination of parenthood. Field also said that the director, Michael Maggio (deceased), was affected by serious health issues during the rehearsal period.
This revival has been directed by Rob Melrose, whose considerable experience with Shakespeare is solid grounding for penetrating larger than life characters. To make heavily philosophical plays work, the introspective elements of such writing must achieve a high level of sustained, rightly channeled thought energy. Melrose’s cast achieves that numinously. The audience the night I attended was enrapt.
Playing with Fire is set at the Arctic Circle, where the ageing Dr. Victor Frankenstein has been pursued by the Creature he created. The drama flashes back at points to the younger Victor who tries to juggle his obsession with scientific exploration in the biochemical realm with his competing desire for love. The younger’s life catapults out of balance when his lust for science wins out. Field gives us a mercilessly frank look at how decisions made in youth can reverberate thunderously into the later chapters of life. Michael Locher’s striking set metaphorically parallels the Doctor’s running from accountability from the disaster which he has created (fathered)—running to the very end of the earth.
Melrose has masterfully led the superb cast to penetrate the characters with such deep authenticity that though the dialogue is deeply philosophical, it is made vividly human. We feel that the actors know the stakes are high. Elijah Alexander brings an urgently driven need to be understood by his creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by Zachary Fine. The actor elicits an aching, anguished need to be loved by his creator. Alexander is wrenching.
Moroever, the relationship is uncannily son to father, which means Playing With Fire could be counted as a notable dramatic work centered on father/son relationships (think Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father). It also stands as a warning to scientists, as well as creators of anything, that we are to be responsible for what we create. What if freedom of expression is held so paramount, that we express is destructive? Should we get away with in the name of freedom and rights? This is the kind of question that Playing With Fire impels the audience to think about. This is also pure Mary Shelley. What a tribute!
Fine brings a manic brittle quality to the guilt-ridden Doctor that utterly crackles. It’s a portrait of pure torment that contrasts with an unsettling undercurrent with Ryan Colbert as his younger self. Colbert commands his scenes with youthful vitality and volatility as a young student on fire for exploring the brave underworld of biological experimentation. However, given that he is young, he inherently wants romance and true love. This manifests in a relationship with the gentle Elizabeth, portrayed lovingly and fatefully by Amelia Pedlow.
Unfortunately, she suffers and sacrifices as young Victor comes to prioritize science over love. Out of this priority he constructs an actual man fittingly named Adam, played to primal effect in a raw visceral turn by Jason Rojas. At this point, young Victor officially plays with fire. He plays God. The ego triumphs, planting the seeds of guilt that will ultimately agonize him from then on. Robert Dorfman provides delightful comic relief as a natural science professor who takes a shine to the ever earnest Victor, which is understandable given the magnetic energy emanated by strapping young Victor. Raquel Barreto’s 19th century costumes splendidly capture this time of Victor’s life, while those for the Arctic segments seem to subtly signify how layers of clothing represent the layers of secrets we harbor as we age and deny.
Field (b.1935) adapted Dickens’s Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol for the stage, as well as Camille from the Alexandre Dumas novel. She also advised on several major classic European plays in the late 1970s and ’80s at the Big G, which was and still is considered to be the nation’s flagship regional theater. She is a pivotal figure for the Guthrie attaining its international reputation as a pre-eminent producer of classic plays. From 1971 to 1983, in the heyday of The Playwrights Center, she was Playwright in Residence as well. Her A Christmas Carol ran every holiday season at the Guthrie from 1975 to 2009. Wildly popular and profitable, it cemented the theater’s high standing across the region with the crowds from the Upper Midwest that perennially flocked to it.. As with Frankenstein—Playing With Fire, Field proves herself a searing but compassionate examiner of male deep psychology, never remotely resorting to crude gender generalizations about men. This revival is highly recommended.
Frankenstein – Playing With Fire
Through Oct. 27
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis