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'Frankenstein' is fine: Guthrie’s monster take doesn’t quite catch fire

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography

Playwright Barbara Field has a long history at the Guthrie Theater, but by far her most-seen play is A Christmas Carol, which served as the Guthrie’s text for decades until being replaced by Crispin Whittell’s script in 2010. Audiences may get some familiar feelings at her Frankenstein — Playing With Fire (1988), which has more than a couple similarities to the haunted holiday chestnut.

Like Scrooge, Victor Frankenstein (Zachary Fine) is an old man who cast joy aside in a single-minded passion that could never heal his youthful wounds. Whereas Scrooge was a money-grubber, though, Frankenstein sold his soul to science (in 2018, a much more old-fashioned concept). The result was his own personal ghoul, who in Field’s vision serves as his interlocutor while the two tumble back through time.

Unlike the Ghost of Christmas Past, Frankenstein’s creature (Elijah Alexander) looks upon a younger version of himself as he and his creator, often positioned on a soaring promontory of ebon ice created by scenic designer Michael Locher, revisit the events that led to the tense Arctic confrontation where we first meet them. Copies of Frankenstein’s blue coat, stolen from him by the creature and subsequently replaced, multiply as the maker and his monster behold young Frankenstein (Ryan Colbert) and, eventually, a freshly reanimated creature (Jason Rojas).

In what might be the longest ever take on the “talking killer” trope, Frankenstein essentially holds his reanimated rogue at gunpoint for two hours. This onstage dramaturgy gets a little tedious, but the well-known narrative is strong enough that we gladly follow along to see them play the hits: the grave-robbing, the electric activation, the freak’s flight and his fateful return.

Director Rob Melrose conducts his cast across a set that owes more to the clean, modern aesthetics of ’50s science-fiction flicks than the ’30s horror movies most famously associated with Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old novel. Scenes fade into vision from behind a framed scrim, or rise into being from trapdoors, while our longtime companions strike a variety of tragic poses on the rippling ice.

Alexander and Fine are both, well, fine, but we’re grateful when Robert Dorfman arrives as young Victor’s professor, a comic character whose hints at thwarted desires make him far more fascinating than the play’s transparent protagonists. Rojas is also compelling as the aching, confused creature who will ultimately mature into the poised (even model-esque, with his sexy tatts and luxurious locks) Alexander.

Field’s Frankenstein gets the job done, with the help of Melrose’s moody production and Cliff Caruthers’ ominous underscore, but as a latter-day adaptation, it suffers by comparison to Kate Hamill’s new take on Little Women, now playing at the Jungle Theater. The source material is very different, true—but Frankenstein’s inconsequential Elizabeth (Amelia Pedlow) feels like a character Hamill wouldn’t have stood for. Maybe what most needs to be told right now is not the story of who Frankenstein invented, but the story of who invented Frankenstein.

IF YOU GO:

Frankenstein — Playing With Fire
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Through October 27; 612-377-2224