Frankenstein – Playing With Fire goes beyond the tip of the iceberg

A cultural phenomenon returns in Frankenstein – Playing With Fire, now showing at the Guthrie. Picking up several years after Mary Shelley left off, playwright Barbara Fields pits Frankenstein against his monster one final time in the Arctic Circle. The two agree to forge a truce for one day so that they can answer each other’s questions. The monster is still searching for answers about why he was created, and a dying Frankenstein wishes to make his final observations of his creation. Over the course of 24 hours, the two force each other to face the events that brought them to this point, and to reconcile – if not with each other, then with the past.

With such well-known source material, the actors’ performances say as much about their own interpretations of the characters as Field’s, and the attention to detail in the actors’ performances is what makes them shine. Elijah Alexander’s Creature occasionally pauses or stretches out specific letters, evoking a child learning how to say more complicated words. This reminds the audience that the Creature is, ultimately, much younger than Frankenstein, and not like most humans in the way that he was raised and learned to speak. Much of his vocabulary comes from reading, not from hearing others speak, and so his words are disjointed. He understands their meaning better than he knows what they should sound like, emphasizing his life in isolation.

Among Field’s most intriguing choices is the way that she plays with time. Throughout the show, Frankenstein and his Creature’s younger selves join them onstage, and memories unfold before both characters as they converse. In one of the most captivating moments, the younger Creature addresses the older Frankenstein, telling him that “[the creature’s] happiness depends on [Frankenstein.]” The blurring of time only makes sense for a story that is so focused on asking whether dichotomies really are so different at all. Are life and death antonyms, or close to the same? Are Frankenstein and his creation polar opposites, or near twins? What does it mean for something to be past or present?

The design of the production also contributed to the questions raised by the play. Characters and props that were a part of the main characters’ memories entered either through platforms that would raise and lower up through the stage or from behind a large, icy structure. In these ways, their entrances mimicked how they came up in the conversation – either popping up unexpectedly, with the main characters being forced to make room for them in the dialogue, or slowly creeping up from behind the ice.

Frankenstein – Playing With Fire offered a deeper look at a story that many know by heart. The beautiful set design and thoughtful acting came together to do a robust script justice. Taking Mary Shelley’s spooky story to the next level, Frankenstein – Playing With Fire offers answers to some of Shelley’s original questions, and opens up even more about the humanity of both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation.