“Playing with Fire” plays with a classic tale

This Guthrie production is an interpretive re-imagining of “Frankenstein.”

Kelly Holm, Senior Reporter

Few stories are so deeply ingrained in pop culture’s subconscious as “Frankenstein Even if they have not read the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, most can recall its basic premise of a scientist creating a monster and abandoning him to wreak havoc on all he holds dear, despite the fact that the Creature himself is often erroneously referred to by his maker’s name. There is good reason why the story’s relevance continues today, in the year of its bicentennial.

While it may be hailed as the first true sci-fi novel, the questions it proposes about bioethics are evergreen, especially in today’s age of gene editing and 23andme. Victor Frankenstein’s experiment was poorly thought out, to create a sentient being with no apparent rationale other than “because I can”, and what nerve he has to act so surprised at the Creature’s ugliness. Well, what did you expect when you made him out of reanimated dead flesh? This is the Creature’s chief lament as he implores his creator for the reason he was made, a question that is explored more personally in “Playing with Fire,” this stage adaptation by playwright Barbara Field. Here, creature and creator discuss things face to face, man to… monster.

As the show takes place near the North Pole, the stage is sparsely decorated, the only backdrops being structures designed to resemble floes of ice, with the largest of them leaving the audience with fears for the cast’s safety every time an actor is made to climb it. The Creature, played by Elijah Alexander, does not resemble the green-faced hulk ingrained in the collective unconscious by film and TV, but rather is dressed like an adventurous sea captain, albeit with scars and a leg tattoo to convey his homeliness. While this offers the statement that beauty, or lack thereof, is in the eyes of the beholder, one can help but wonder if the Guthrie could have done more to accentuate his wretched appearance- if not played straight, then perhaps symbolically. Dr. Victor Frankenstein himself, played by Zachary Fine, looks and sounds exactly like you would expect from the elderly mad scientist.

As the Creature begs Frankenstein to reveal the meaning of life- well, at least of his own- insight is given into the younger selves of both Victor and the Creature, symbolically named Adam in his past form. Ryan Colbert expertly portrays the young Victor’s journey from boy to man, from his childlike exuberance in an early scene in which he pleads with God to spare his mother’s life, to the moment when he becomes God to his own Adam.

Even attendees who have never read Shelley’s classic will appreciate the perspective each cast member brings to their role and will find themselves engaging in the play’s exploration of life’s greatest philosophical question. And when Dr. Frankenstein utters to the Creature, “I made you beautiful enough. Life made you hideous,” the audience will relate in more ways than one.