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REVIEW: Smoldering Coals in Playing With Fire (Guthrie)

Ryan Colbert (Victor), Jason Rojas (Adam), Elijah Alexander (The Creature), and Zachary Fine (Frankenstein) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Frankenstein–Playing With Fire. Photo by Dan Norman.

It’s been 30 years since Barbara Field’s Frankenstein – Playing with Fire first played at the Guthrie. 2018 also marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, a work that not was not only a hit, but also defined much of Gothic and horror literature as we know them. Now, this stage adaptation of Shelley’s novel has come back to the Guthrie for a reckoning with its (institutional) creator.

Back in 1988, the Guthrie itself was just 25 years old, still nestled at Vineland Place next to the Walker Art Museum; the Wurtele Thrust Stage where the play is now being staged wasn’t even a glimmer in the eye. The Culture Wars were in full swing, I was just a baby, and the Guthrie was at just the right age for a quarter-life crisis. Rather than go backpacking through Europe, the Guthrie commissioned a play about backpacking through the Arctic. The Star Tribune called the play “intellectually stimulating and thoroughly engrossing” and City Pages described it as “almost like poetry – each layer of comprehension uncovers another layer of questions.”

Things take a turn for the electric. Top: Jason Rojas as Adam; bottom: Ryan Colbert as Victor. Photo by Dan Norman.

Much like the novel, Field’s play unfolds chiefly through flashbacks. If you haven’t read the book, much of what happens might be novel (so to speak); Frankenstein’s “monster” is such a part of the common zeitgeist that it’s easy to lose track of the original narrative. It’s best moments contrast The Creature’s emotional maturity and guilt with Frankenstein’s hunger for absolution. A 1990 review of the play by the LA Times drew parallels with the dangers of genetic engineering, a metaphor that still works powerfully today.

At the start of the play, we see Frankenstein (Zachary Fine) and The Creature (Elijah Alexander) in a confrontation at the North Pole. Soon, however, we are pulled back into a flashback where we meet their younger selves, played by Ryan Colbert (a young Frankenstein, but not the Gene Wilder type) and Jason Rojas (Adam, as The Creature is initially known). Amelia Pedlow as Elizabeth is sadly underused – like Rojas’ Adam, she appears to briefly and without enough to say and do.

The flashbacks and jump-forwards condense the narrative, but leave key parts – interesting parts – off-stage. I had to go and check the synopsis to fill in some of the gaps. The tone is also inconsistent – there are parts that seem like they were supposed to be serious that elicited nervous laughter. Director Rob Melrose’s vision for this play seems to be drawing parallels between Frankenstein and The Creature, abetted by the same coat that they wear. The physical ways in which the actors are arranged and posed are often an interesting counterpoint to their words.

The production design certainly has its elements of spectacle, but as a substitute for more of the human drama the whole experience left me feeling cold. Oh, to have seen the parts in-between scenes.

Tragedy under the Northern Lights in the Guthrie Theater’s Playing With Fire. Pictured: Elijah Alexander (The Creature), Jason Rojas (Adam), Zachary Fine (Frankenstein), and Ryan Colbert (Victor). Photo by Dan Norman.

Frankenstein–Playing With Fire plays at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN through October 27.

Amy Donahue