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The Show Report Review – REVIEW: “Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein)” — Golden West College Performing Arts

“I Ought to be Thy Adam, But I am Rather the Fallen Angel…”

At the North Pole, gun in hand, an angry creator confronts his anguished creation. Is this a metaphor for God and man? Well, Yes—and No.

“Why,” the Creature asks Frankenstein, who has tracked him to the Arctic wilderness to kill him for the slaying of his wife and brother, “did you make me?”

The two figures are actually the grizzled Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the monster he created long ago, grappling with their personal pasts and with questions about the relationship between God and man, and the consequences that attend creation.

Years have passed, and it is at this frozen sea at the literal and metaphorical top of the earth’s axis that the play begins, where Frankenstein has finally caught up with his monstrous creation. Behind them hangs a coolly shining globe of Promethean light, which later turns red-hot in scenes depicting the making of monsters.

Both men are well-spoken, articulate, and torn up by rage, despair, and exhaustion; neither looks especially grotesque, though neither looks normal, either. The ambiguity is deliberate and effective, for as their debate unfolds we realize that each is the other’s doppelganger, codependent, and tormentor. The Creature, strongly played by Paul Jasser, invites Frankenstein to kill him, rather than continue a life of loveless solitude.

Frankenstein affirms his murderous intention, but can never bring himself to act on it. Instead he quizzes the Creature about his life, for the purposes of scientific observation. In flashback, the men recount Shelley’s story, pared to its essentials, with most supporting characters removed and its key themes highlighted by ironic commentary. When Frankenstein reminds the Creature of his unfulfilled vow, “Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous,” the Creature sneers: “I was bargaining at the time.”
Their reminiscence is cinematically intercut with scenes featuring their younger selves as well as Frankenstein’s beloved stepsister/fiancee Elizabeth, who explores the tension between the character’s penny-dreadful heroine exterior and her underlying frustration with her limited options, and Frankenstein’s teacher, Professor Krempe, bearing nicely barbed humor in contrast to Frankenstein’s obsessive seriousness.

The vehicle for this grisly excursion into literature, philosophy and theology is Barbara Field’s 1989“Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein),” a well-acted chiller directed by Tom Amen, offering much thought on the nature of man and the danger of unbridled science, and now playing for only one more weekend at the Golden West College Performing Arts Mainstage Theatre.

As the narrative flashes back and forth between the confrontation at the North Pole and the story of young Victor’s loss of his mother, we see his cold scientific approach to life, along with his romance with his cousin Elizabeth, his schooling with the elderly Professor Krempke and the creation of Adam, the Creature.

But forget the usual grunting behemoth with malice on his mind. This middle-ager is well read, thinking in complicated terms (he refers to the “sanctimonious platitudes of mankind”) and feels ever so deeply. He describes prayer as “a kind of ecstasy.” In his discontent, the Creature mainly wants to know the whys of his existence. He also wants love.

He’s also one of the saddest creations around. If anyone has a soul, it’s this guy. That’s really the point of Field’s reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic story of horror, science and the divine: The Creature is more of a man than his maker, the cynical and barren Dr. Frankenstein. One feels sympathy for this character, even though he has been done to death in dozens of B movies.

In an animated, spine-tingling cast, Paul Jasser is particularly effective as the Creature, who, in his long wanderings after the slayings of Frankenstein’s brother and wife, has schooled himself at the Sorbonne and is particularly familiar with “Paradise Lost.”

Wondrous too, is Scott Keister as the older Frankenstein, in a powerful performance that suggests searing dry ice, Derick Gonzalez as the cold, all-too-scientific young Victor, Katherine Heflin as the ill-fated Elizabeth, Reagan Pettigrew as Adam and Jack Clark as Professor Krempke.

At her theatrical crossroads, Ms. Field’s influences are strong, especially in relation to the netherworld setting and the short, enigmatic non sequiturs with which the play opens: “Have I caught you yet?” “Do you sleep, and do you dream?”

In the second act, we learn that Frankenstein is disgusted by his creation and abandons it. Thus the Creature loses the love of his creator and also find that the world shuns him. With such conceits, playwright Field borrows a few pages from Milton, and the Creature becomes as if Lucifer. In retribution for abandonment, he destroys those things his creator loves and, in so doing, becomes evil. As a result, certain scenes linger in the mind long after the play ends. A haunting image, the choreographed murder of Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth, by the Creature is curiously vivid. The accidental murder of Dr. Frankenstein’s younger brother by the Creature is also tellingly played off stage.

Field’s mix of dramatic phrases and philosophical themes are borrowed from various literary sources, mostly from Mary Shelley’s original “Frankenstein” of 1831. From such literary time warp comes Field’s most brilliant theatrical coup. She reimagines Frankenstein’s Creature as Biblical Adam. Moments after the doctor electrifies a mass of membranous debris into a living being, the Creature speaks the words written for Adam by John Milton: “Did I request thee, maker, from my clay, to mold me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?”

That was really some idea Lord Byron had back in 1816 when he challenged himself and a few of his friends to a literary contest. “We will each write a ghost story,” Byron said, according to Mary Shelley, and out of that group project came Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” So did Polidori’s novel, “The Vampyre,” whose portrayal of an undead seducer stalking London set the pattern for numerous Byronic bloodsuckers to come–most famously the title character in Bram Stoker’s 1897 “Dracula.” Frankenstein’s monster and the Transylvanian count have been linked ever since.

Whatever else Mary Shelley’s monster is, however, he is talkative, a far cry from the inarticulate bolt-head played by Boris Karloff, and spoofed by Peter Boyle as a song-and-dance man with two left feet in Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein.” The creature, as Shelley calls him, not only speaks, he quotes Milton’s epic poem,“Paradise Lost,” fueling his own rage and inciting confusion at having been cruelly rejected by his creator.

Admonishing Victor Frankenstein, who ran in horror at the imperfection of the being he had brought to life from pieces of corpses, he conjectures: “Remember that I am thy creature, I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel . . . I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.”

Field’s “Playing With Fire…” focuses more on the philosophical concerns with life and death rather than on horror-show effects, and for those familiar with these stories only from the movies, some audience members will probably be surprised that the play is far more talky than active. In this respect it mirrors the tradition of the gothic horror story, a genre generally dependent on the evocative power of words to create a mood of dread.

This interworking of questions about the origin, morality, and destiny of humankind creates breathtaking theater, not simply because Field’s concepts are large, but because her collaborators are capable of translating her complex ideas and literate dialogue into powerful and visual theater. The designers have created an entirely self-contained unit set, with internalized special lighting effects hidden in the risers, under floorboards and back projected. A devilish set of props also provide a good deal of excitement as characters emerge in a science fictional world familiar to us mostly from the old RKO monster movies and accentuated by the inventive, multiworld stage designs of Tim Mueller.

The six actors of “Playing With Fire…” perform meticulously. So balanced is the interrelationship of the actors that it is difficult to praise one above the others. With magnetic stage presence, kinetic subtleties, and electrifying dialogue, these elements help create a scrupulous theatrical event. Overall, the play is a haunting image that lingers. So do the last words of Frankenstein to his Creature: “I made you beautiful enough, but life made you ugly.”

Directed by Tom Amen with acumen, flair and imagination, the skillful Lighting Design is by Crystal Shomph, and the brilliant Costume Design is spearheaded by Amanda Martin. The haunting and ever-present Sound Design, conduced by Paisha Bleich, welds together all the visual elements into a highly charged and atmospheric multiworld, past, present, specific, and ambiguous; Wig, Hair, and Makeup is masterfully performed by Laura Hughes, and the play is Stage Managed by Kylie Mae Schilhab.

Not only a gothic tale of horror, but a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive passion, unchecked science, and the estrangement of god and man, playwright Barbara Field has masterfully captured each of these themes in her brilliant reinterpretation of Shelly’s original novel.

Come see “Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein),” currently in its final weekend run at Golden West College Performing Arts, closing on Sunday, October 13th. This production does contain adult language and situations, and is intended for mature audiences. Tickets are now on sale at: https://tickets.gwctheater.com/TheatreMan…/…/tmEvent340.html

Chris Daniels
Arts Reviewer
The Show Report