BWW Review: FRANKENSTEIN--PLAYING WITH FIRE at the Guthrie
30 years ago, Minneapolis based playwright Barbara Field penned an adaptation of Mary Shelley's famous novel for the Guthrie. Now, on the 200th anniversary of the novel's publication, the Guthrie is opening their season with a new production of Field's script, titled FRANKENSTEIN-PLAYING WITH FIRE. Field has been in the rehearsal hall but I do not know if the script has been updated. Beautifully designed, as ever on Guthrie main stages, the script is quite postmodern in that different moments in the chronological sequence interpenetrate. Despite strong work by skilled actors in the six roles, the whole somehow falls short.
I have more patience for wordy scripts and philosophical disputation than most theatergoers, I wager, but this two hour, two act event is really talky and stretched even my capacity for argumentation. It begins well, with Dr. Frankenstein, who has tracked his Creature to the North Pole in order to kill him just before he himself expects to die, asking "Do you dream?"
Much follows that circles around questions of consciousness, mind, and soul; about revenge; about the roots of morality; about the difference between results and consequences; and, finally, about whether it is more monstrous to create a being and then abandon it, unloved, than to attempt to learn what it is to be human.
Both Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature are doubled in the casting. Frankenstein the elder is played with gravitas by Zachary Fine; his younger self Victor by Ryan Colbert, who brings slim elegance, brainy impatience, and relational cluelessness to the part. The Creature is played by Elijah Alexander with restrained, carefully calibrated movement and vocal impairment. His 'birth' self, Adam, played by Jason Rojas, has to wait for the finale of Act 1 to make his first, wordless, physically demanding appearance.
Amelia Pedlow carries the thankless role of Elizabeth, cousin and love interest of Victor, and eventual victim both of his repressed sexual nature and his conflict with the Creature. It is to her credit that she brings some agency to a role that offers little.
Miscast, though, is Guthrie regular Robert Dorfman as Professor Krempe. On opening night, it was clear there were people in the house who know him to be a gifted comic, and so chose to read his performance in that vein. While the script needs some levity, that seemed to me to throw off the balance needed. These were not the only moments that read as comic when they shouldn't have. Perhaps this will shift as the run proceeds. Dorfman does better as the Old Man, maybe because he plays this role sitting down with his back to the audience, which limits comic affectations.
Director Rob Melrose is clearly intrigued by the ways in which these characters can mirror one another, and some of the most effective staging uses moments of physical mirroring. At times, he uses staging to suggest that the scientist Frankenstein is more monster than his monster. Costumer Raquel Barreto assists in this effort by providing all four male leads with copies of the same blue coat.
Scenic designer Michael Locher relies a good deal on two traps with elevators that bring up furnishings as needed. The overall look is a powerful one: reminiscent of Hokusai's famous wave, the stage is dominated by a huge shiny black sculptural element that can be climbed. Above it at extreme side stage right is a disc that can be lighted to suggest sun or moon or black hole and provides both mystery and visual punctuation. Behind it sit three electric proscenium arches and a geometric electric element based on triangles. Suggestive coils fly in above at the crucial moments when Frankenstein uses electricity to animate his monster. Lighting designer Cat Tate Starmer has provided a wide range of colored effects using these elements, which effectively contrast natural forms with the manmade.
A shout out is due too to Sound Designer and Composer Cliff Caruthers, who has crafted a 30 minute preshow soundscape that is truly creepy and unsettling, one that calls up arctic winds but also anxiety dreams. It had my shoulders raised even before the first word of the text. And while I don't know who designed it, the show's logo design is brilliant.
Many people see FRANKENSTEIN, the novel, as the first science fiction ever written. The origin story of the book deserves mention: Mary Shelley was still a teenager when she penned it, part of a challenge to create the best ghost story while vacationing in the Alps with her lover (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and his friend Lord Byron, the most famous writer of the time. They were stuck indoors due to the unusually rainy summer, caused by high altitude clouds resulting from a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia. She is said to have arrived at her idea based on a dream. And, no question, she won the contest.
FRANKENSTEIN-PLAYING WITH FIRE runs through October 27 at The Guthrie.
Photo credit: Dan Norman