Creepy, droning music plays, making us feel as if we’re in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” On stage is a giant, threatening wave of glimmering black ice. After a blackout, the lights come up in the middle of a confrontation, with one crazed man holding a gun on another and demanding, “Do you dream? Do you sleep?”
“Frankenstein — Playing With Fire” plunges us into a waking nightmare the second we walk into the Guthrie Theater’s thrust stage, but whose nightmare is it? The man who is holding the gun is Frankenstein (Zachary Fine), the scientist who created life simply because he could. The gun is pointed at Creature (Elijah Alexander), who, like Frankenstein, has found his way to the North Pole to chat and seek revenge and ponder the meaning of life. (Don’t ask how they got to the North Pole 100 years before its discovery. We’re in a nightmare, remember?)
The men are wearing, essentially, the same costume, their 19th-century blue cloaks and gray trousers. It’s the first way “Playing With Fire” raises the question of who, really, is the monster here: the guy who created life without any thought to the moral implications of that act, or the Creature who has simply followed his nature while trying to learn to be human?
The two explore questions like that in flashbacks, nightmares within nightmares, in which we get the back story of how Frankenstein, now called Victor (Ryan Colbert), turned his back on humanity to create life, now called Adam (Jason Rojas). Those characters will also end up wearing that same blue cloak and, in fact, the only people in the play who don’t get in on the Blue Cloak Club are Victor’s fiancée (Amelia Pedlow, whose musical voice made me wish the play gave her more to say) and his teacher (droll Robert Dorfman, made up and costumed to look like Edna Mode’s wacky brother).
Barbara Field’s play is a heady affair but its clarity and humor assure that it never feels speechy. Concentrating on the parts of the story Mary Shelley didn’t tell in her classic novel — which came out in 1818, the same year as Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” and which subsequently has inspired everyone from Mel Brooks to General Mills — Field introduces fascinating new ideas of her own.
Could it be, for instance, that bored, smug Victor Frankenstein created his monster because he needed someone to challenge him and then got more than he bargained for? Maybe it’s all of those cloaks, but watching the four Frankenstein/Creatures combine and recombine in “Playing With Fire,” I kept thinking of Javert in “Les Miserables,” who creates an enemy, Jean Valjean, to give his own life meaning. And I thought of contemporary political discourse, where we don’t just disagree with opponents. We turn them into enemies.
Director Rob Melrose is a little too in love with trapdoors — occasionally, “Playing With Fire” feels like a play about watching things ascend and descend via hydraulics — but he keeps the action moving fluidly as the characters intertwine with each other across time frames. Melrose gets impassioned performances from the six-person cast, and he has crafted a knockout moment for the end of the first act. Set in Frankenstein’s laboratory (accent on the second syllable, please), the scene’s rapidly accelerating action keeps the suspense building and building until it climaxes with the creation of life.
We end the play’s second act as we began, in the Arctic and wondering whose bad dream we’re in. Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the play is a timely reminder that a lot of us can’t sleep because, like Frankenstein and his Creature, we all share the same nightmare.