Rescuing `Frankenstein' from melodrama. Playwright Barbara Field's postmodern `response' is a meditation on theology

In ``Frankenstein: Playing With Fire,'' playwright Barbara Field and the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis have given us, not a ``big Broadway show,'' but an entirely different sort of creature of the theater. In contrast to crowd-pleasing, bread-winning mega-shows, ``Frankenstein'' possesses the kind of daring that infrequently makes its way to Broadway these days. Yet ``Frankenstein '' is not truly original, for it lacks the virtuosic originality we used to expect of modernists. It is comfortably ``postmodern'': something new and something old, a theatrical crossroad at which the best and most diverse influences of late 20th-century performing arts have come together with abundant polish and finesse.

The Guthrie, of course, is one of America's major outposts of regional theater. ``Frankenstein'' will open there July 8, having concluded a national tour that brought it to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where I saw it.

Playwright Field has created a ``response'' to the ever-popular metaphor of Frankenstein and his monster, the Creature. As a play, it owes a great debt to Robert Montgomery's brilliant ``Subject to Fits,'' a play of 1972 that was one of the first successful efforts to create a ``response'' to a work of literature (Dostoyevsky's novel ``The Idiot''), rather than simply writing a faithful and literal dramatization.

At her theatrical crossroads, Ms. Field stands with Montgomery firmly behind her, while on her right is Samuel Beckett, whose influences are strong, especially in relation to the netherworld setting of ``Frankenstein'' and the short, enigmatic non sequiturs with which the play opens: ``Have I caught you yet?'' ``Do you sleep, and do you dream?''

Lapses in time between past and present, as well as recapitulation of bits of dialogue between the two sets of characters playing the young Frankenstein (past) and the old Frankenstein (present), the young Creature (past) and the old Creature (present), recall the time/space devices of Tom Stoppard's play ``Travesties'' without truly equaling it in invention.

Stoppard is also influential in Field's mixture of dramatic phrases and philosophical themes borrowed from various literary sources: from Mary Shelley's original ``Frankenstein'' of 1831 and John Milton's ``Paradise Lost'' of 1667. From such time warps and literary loans come 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?''

Taking Mary Shelley's lead, playwright Field has framed her postmodern version of ``Frankenstein'' as a theological drama. Field puts these words, written by Shelley, into the mouth of the innocent Creature who has become, through pain and solitude, a murderer:

``Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather thy fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I will again be virtuous.''

This interworking of questions about the origin, morality, and destiny of humankind creates breathtaking theater, not simply because Field's concepts are large, but also 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 and under the floorboards.

A devilish set of elevators provides a good deal of excitement as props and characters emerge and submerge, in a science fictional world familiar to us both in the old RKO monster movies and in the stage designs of Robert Wilson.

A multiworld - past, present, ambiguous

``Frankenstein's'' minimalist and highly mechanized setting by John Arnone effectively contrasts with the period costumes of Jack Edwards. Jack Dilliard's lighting plot is uncomplicated but effective; while John Calder's haunted and ever-present sound design welds together all the visual elements into a highly charged and atmospheric multiworld, past, present, specific, and ambiguous.

The six actors of ``Frankenstein'' perform faultlessly. So balanced is the interrelationship of the actors that it is difficult to praise one above the others. I must admit, however, that the magnetic stage presence, the kinetic subtleties, and the electrifying speeches of Peter Syvertsen as the Creature are elements that particularly help to make ``Frankenstein'' a memorable evening of theater.

Beyond and behind these many virtues of the Guthrie Theater production of ``Frankenstein: Playing With Fire'' is an unmistakable collaboration between playwright Field and director Michael Maggio. The play could not readily be the creation of one person - like so much of what we currently call ``performance art'' - but rather, the result of a long and complex creative association, like those that evolve out of theater workshops, where experimentation, revision, and discovery transform plays on paper into living plays on stage.

Collaborative inspiration

As a result, certain scenes linger in the mind long after the play ends. The choreographed murder in slow motion of Dr. Frankenstein's fianc'ee, Elizabeth, by the Creature is curiously removed but vivid. The accidental murder of Dr. Frankenstein's young brother by the Creature is chillingly played off stage. When Elizabeth goes in search of the child who is playing ball by the pond, the Creature silently reveals a striped ball from under his cloak.

At the close of the first act, the classical images of science fiction, so familiar to us from Frankenstein films, provide an ideal bit of high production, as electrodes with flashing lights and an operating table with Creature/Prometheus bound upon it are mechanically elevated to the pinnacle of the stage set, and, with a roar of electronic sound and a great flash of light, the Creature is born.

In the second act, we learn that Frankenstein, the creator/god, is disgusted by his creation and abandons it. Thus the Creature loses the love of the god that created him and cannot win the love of the world, which shuns him. With such conceits, playwright Field borrows a few pages from Milton, and the Creature/Adam becomes Lucifer. In retribution for abandonment, the Creature destroys those things his creator loves and, in so doing, becomes evil.

A haunting, troubling image

Years later, at the point the play begins, Frankenstein finally catches up with his monstrous creation at the North Pole, where, after a long exchange of woes and words, the Creature agrees to let his creator destroy him, rather than continue a life of loveless solitude. Frankenstein takes aim with his pistol, but dies before he can assassinate the Creature.

The final scene is deeply troubling. At the end of the world, high above our heads, we see the naked and solitary Adam slowly rising into the firmament and leaving Eden behind.

It 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.''

Jamake Highwater is the author of more than 20 books on the arts.

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