In 1815, Mary Shelley, an 18-year-old English author, began writing a novel unlike anything ever before created. It was considered so scandalous and blasphemous that it wasn't until the second printing of Frankenstein, three years later, that the author's name appeared. Thus, the legend began and continues to this day with a profoundly thought-provoking turn on the legend of this familiar "monster": Playing with Fire (After Frankenstein) by Barbara Field. This play, having premiered in Minneapolis in 1988, is basically a dialogue, plus numerous flashbacks, between the monster and its creator many years after the "birth." Theatre in the Park, at the entrance to Raleigh's Pullen Park, is presenting this very wordy, fascinating premise that uses the basic foundation of Shelley's novel but takes us to places that had never before been explored.
Like most theaters in the Triangle, we enter the venue with the curtain drawn (if there even is one) and are left to ponder the scenic design and what it portends. The stage appears to be only a very desolate and featureless terrain: an all-white covering and bunting along with streaked light blue and white lighting in the distance give it a realistic feeling of an arctic landscape. When the house darkens, followed by the stage lights going up, we see two figures, both sitting: stage right is a somewhat emaciated man who appears to be in great pain, and across from him is a hulking figure wrapped in raggedy clothes. We are indeed at "the top of the world" listening in on a confrontation between the creator and his creation.
This play is for mature audiences only, meaning that, especially in the beginning, it requires concentration and does take some time to coalesce into an understanding of what's going on. Frankenstein, the creator (D. Anthony Pender), has tracked down the man he has created, The Creature (Mark A. Zumbach), to the North Pole. It is an undisclosed number of years after the creature's activation and Frankenstein is horrified at the results of what he's done. Pender was superb as a brilliant scientist and conflicted soul who bares his now-realized faults over the evil he has set in motion. Zumbach played the creature as a well-spoken and intelligent being. No longer a grunting, mechanical being with bolts in his neck. He pointedly expounds on the terms of his creation, including the crux of the problem presented to Frankenstein, "You were more interested in the act of creation than what would happen afterwards." Even an atheist can realize that much of this is also an allegory for God and Adam duking it out!
We at first get a glimpse of the "other" stage when Frankenstein has a memory of his lover and wife for the briefest of time, Elizabeth (Olivia Fitts). Behind the arctic scene is an upper, screened-in area that skillfully gives it a dreamlike quality since the play is really only between The Creature and Frankenstein, except for his memories and flashbacks. This opens up a wealth of theatrical possibilities, especially in the second act, and greatly enhances and expands the scope of the production. It creates an aura of almost two distinct plays in one, and director Ira David Wood III has expertly kept them both apart and together.
In addition to Elizabeth, this "other" play consists of Victor (Ira David Wood IV), who is Frankenstein as a young man, Professor Krempe (John Honeycutt), and Adam (Ford Nelson), the very buff creature as a young "man." Numerous important scenes take place in this world, including the relationship between Victor and Elizabeth as well as Victor's early academic discoveries. A particularly harrowing scene, perhaps as homage to Bride of Frankenstein, takes place when the attempted creation of the creature's mate – let's just say – goes awry. Except for one brief encounter near the end, these two worlds never cross planes of existence.
The first act concludes on a very strong note, and ensures that you come back for more, in the lab scene where The Creature comes alive along with bolts of electricity and other well-executed effects. I can almost see Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein screaming, "He's alive!"
This all sounds quite grim and serious, and much of it is, but there are many moments of humor and discussion that interweave profound ideas with absurdity. This is by no means a "horror" play. If The Creature is at all frightening, it is by virtue of what man's creation has made him to be, the good as well as the horrifying. Mary Shelley certainly could not imagine, and even so when this play was written in 1988, but with the current biological and technological advances, these once theoretical discussions are no longer moot.
Playing with Fire, as presented by Theatre in the Park, has succeeded in creating what makes dramatic theatre great: it leads us to think and re-examine, on many levels, what it is to be human, and does so in an entertaining manner that refuses to condescend to the audience's intelligence. There are too many great lines between Frankenstein and The Creature to list, but one stands out as perhaps the center of the story and a constant in theological discussions: The Creature asks his creator, "How can I be so evil when you were the one that created me?"
Playing with Fire continues through Sunday, October 8. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.