A Turing Test on Top of the World

Frankenstein – Playing with Fire sparks curiosity and musings on humanity at the Guthrie

A photo of some of the cast of "Frankenstein -- Playing with Fire," playing at the Guthrie through Oct. 27. Photo by Dan Norman.
Frankenstein (Zachary Fine) and Creature (Elijah Alexander, far right) gaze upon a young Victor (Ryan Colbert) having a picnic with Elizabeth (Amelia Pedlow) in Frankenstein – Playing with Fire.

Photo by Dan Norman

The first time I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, I hated it. I thought Victor Frankenstein was ridiculously whiny, self-absorbed and had the constitution of a pansy, and I had no emotional investment in anyone in the book. By the end of Minnesota playwright Barbara Field’s literary affair with the book, Frankenstein – Playing with Fire, I was still not emotionally invested in the characters. I was, however, emotionally invested in the intellectual puzzle of how the play could end with both Victor and his creature satisfied. Through Oct. 27, one of the world’s most famous monsters is taking to the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage in an interpretation mercifully enjoyable even if it’s not Halloween.

Field’s play takes us to the Arctic Circle, where, in Shelley’s book, Frankenstein meets Captain Wallace and tells his whole autobiography and how he gave life to a monstrous creature and, after seeing the destruction it caused, is trying to end that life. In this version, Frankenstein doesn’t meet Captain Wallace. Instead, he has one final confrontation with the Creature. (While it doesn’t fit perfectly, the Pirates of the Caribbean phrase definitely flits across my mind: “So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until judgment day and trumpets sound?”)

For so long, the Creature has made sure he is just within Frankenstein’s range so he keeps up his pursuit, and for so long, Frankenstein has only chased the Creature in order to put an end to his abomination. But when the Creature stops, Frankenstein doesn’t shoot. He converses. He tells the Creature that it is only to collect more data, but an underlying loneliness seeps into both of their voices as they recount memories despite the continual flip of the power dynamic in both conversation and physical ability. They quickly realize that without the other there is no one to recognize them as something more than a machine.

Throughout the play, Field merges timelines between past and present, layering scenes with a young version of Frankenstein (referred to as Victor) and his love Elizabeth, his time at the university, his relentless pursuit of knowledge, and the Creature’s own experiences. The past appears in the background at times, a screened off flashback, and at others, it is in the forefront, so visceral that the present Frankenstein and Creature can barely stand it. Perhaps the most stirring scene is when Elizabeth and Victor dance, thanks to movement directors Jonathan Beller and Beth Brooks.

The toying with time is the play’s greatest beauty, and it is what makes me want to see it again. You can catch the connections, the sparks of overlapping dialogue, but there are so many moments (and, granted, some are stretched out) that it reminds of the thrill of doing a deep language and literary analysis of a book. You know you see some of the detail but there is more to be uncovered; you just have to examine it again.

After a bit of a disjointed start, the play settles in, and the audience can fully appreciate the cast and the transient set of Michael Locher, anchored by the beautiful and emaciated arch of rock and ice. Zachary Fine does a fine job as present-day Frankenstein (as do both versions of the creature, the bargaining and learned elder one by Elijah Alexander and the uninhibited younger by Jason Rojas), but it is Ryan Colbert as Victor that drove the play’s heartbeat. Even though Victor is molded to be emotionally awkward to the point where it is played for some face-palming laughs, Colbert breathes so much life into the play as he conveys a man ruled by a duty that no one else understands: to discover all that is out there.

Although the story is full of sorrow and angst (so much angst, Victor), director Rob Melrose makes sure it doesn’t turn a tragedy with overt and ungraceful ploys for pity. Instead, what stands out most about this play—what is refreshing about its focus—is the way it presents the philosophical questions in front of you as a gem with a million conversational facets to turn and coolly examine under the laboratory light.