Carrollton — The Creature that Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates in Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel has been presented and riffed on in myriad ways, from the grunting, flat-headed monster in the best-known movie version of the story (James Whale’s in 1931); to the empty-headed, hunky sex object in the campy The Rocky Horror Show; to the pieced-together demon/human hybrid Adam in the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Not surprisingly, it’s the playwrights who have adapted the story into weighty dramas that have explored the deeper themes of the original story, of morality, using science to play God and questioning existence and life itself. Think of plays like Neal Bell’s Monster or Nick Dear’s Frankenstein, which premiered at the National Theatre of London a few years ago and explores Shelley’s idea of Industrial Revolution invention leading to something beyond man’s control.
Also in this vein is Barbara Field’s Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein), which premiered at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater 25 years ago and makes an outstanding debut for 3 Cords Theatre, directed by Bill Sizemore. It’s presented in conjunction with L.I.P. Service, a still-fledgling group that has done strong work and is often billed as co-producer with another company.
L.I.P. Service is the one-man production company of actor/director Jason Leyva, who, as a theater artist, might just be the best kept secret in North Texas. That would surely change if more saw this production, in which he plays the Creature. Rather, one of two representations of the Creature in Field’s script.
That’s what’s most intriguing about this take on the Shelley story, which, as the title suggests, is more freely adapted than other stage versions. The story’s two major characters, the doc and his monster, are each played by two actors—one set being the younger versions as the activation of the creature happens and in the days and months following; the other as they’ve had more years to become older and, in the Creature’s case at least, wiser.
That is to say he’s more learned, having taught himself to read and therefore analyze—he quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a text explored in Shelley’s original. But he still doesn’t understand why he’s here. So he goes to the North Pole in search of answers, and it’s in that icy landscape where the older doctor Frankenstein (played by Nelson Wilson) searches him out. There, they engage in a philosophical conversation on what it means to be alive.
The action time-jumps between that setting, at the Summer Solstice, and scenes extracted from both of their memories. The play opens with the “birthing” scene, as the Creature, called Adam (Joshua Hahlen), awakens from the lab and stumbles about, desperate to breathe…to move…to be. Christian Genco plays the doctor, Victor, in these scenes, and Noelle Fabian is Elizabeth, Victor’s cousin who vies for his attention and represents the other half that every person searches for in order to make a whole (see Plato’s Symposium). Duality is a recurring motif.
It's performed on a stage in the cavernous space of the Plaza Theatre in Carrollton, with a few rows of chairs set up. (The Plaza, by the way is right by the Carrollton DART Rail stop). The set (by Leyva) incorporates the laboratory elements and the icy mountaintop, a literal topographical feature and a metaphorical one as a comment on Prometheus, the Titan who defied Zeus and crafted man from clay and set him about on a journey of discovery. (Shelley’s book is subtitled The Modern Prometheus.)
Prometheus was chained to a mountain after his deed. He was immortal, but the human doctor Frankenstein is not. It’s not hard to guess what happens to him up there in Field’s play, as a human with a body designed to deteriorate—and no, it doesn’t involve a liver-pecking eagle.
Lighting designer Billy Allen lends to the mood, and, in the lab scenes, the feeling of disorientation. Judy Sizemore’s costumes for the humans are appropriate to the era. The older Creature is swathed in a large, tattered cape that resembles feathers and wings. (Reference to Prometheus’ eagle?)
Performances are solid all around, with believability from the younger crew of Genco and Fabian. It’s to director Sizemore’s credit that there’s not a whiff of the melodramatic, as tends to happen with characters from that era.
The opening scene is a feat of wordless, physical acting for Hahlen. As the older doctor, Wilson conveys the complexity of this character after he’s had years to think about what he has wrought on the world, and ponders his own mortality.
But this show is all about Leyva, given a makeover as the Creature, with shaved head and a contact in one eye that makes it look shot. He speaks in what is at first an off-putting, booming growl of a voice; but it soon makes sense for a manmade creation who has learned to form sentences and thoughts on his own, and whose anger has grown as he’s had more time to repeat the same questions about his existence, never coming up with answers. He may have shed the violence of his “youth,” but it’s not because he understands his powers any better. It’s as if, like so many contemporary versions of classic monsters—this is especially prevalent in the world of vampire fiction—he has been given a soul.
Welcome, Creature, to that evil curse.