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Original monster

Frankenstein’s monster asks the doctor some tough questions in St. Francis’ production of Playing With Fire

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2007-10-22


“My catch phrase: it’s not your grandmother’s Frankenstein. It’s your great great great grandmother’s Frankenstein,” laughs director Brad Beauchamp, describing Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein), the play that makes its debut on Saturday, October 27 for the first of five shows at the University of Saint Francis.

Writer Barbara Field’s Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein) takes its source material from Mary Shelley’s original 1817 Frankenstein. As the legend goes, Shelley’s tragic tale of the doomed Victor Frankenstein and his creation came about when she was challenged to write a scary story.

But like the creature itself, Frankenstein took on a life of its own, becoming a philosophical exploration of the responsibility of science and the hubris of modern man. “It’s really, really powerful,” Beauchamp says of Fields’ adaptation of the story. “It’s so right on to where we are today in society with stem cell research and genetic testing. What are the consequences? Frankenstein’s approach is that a scientist’s job is to find out, to be the first, and damn the consequences. And look where that takes him.”

Fields’ adaptation of that story begins at the end, and takes place in flashbacks. “Victor Frankenstein has just chased his creature to the North Pole,” says John Hermes who plays the “old” Dr. Frankenstein in Playing With Fire (ironically, he was recently in Dracula Baby at Arena Dinner Theater). “He’s getting ready to die, and he’s kind of losing it a bit. All the memories of his life are rushing through his head, and he’s having to relive almost everything and trying to come to terms with what he’s created and the ramifications of that.”

Of course, anyone familiar with the basics of the story (and who isn’t?) will recognize some of the elements — Dr. Frankenstein still digs up fresh graves in order to find specimens for his experiments in reanimating dead tissue, and once he gets that right, his creation goes on a murderous rampage. But Playing With Fire might have you wondering who the real monster is. Jim Matusik, who plays the creature, says he was unfamiliar with the original novel. “I knew it was going to be darker, but I didn’t realize it was going to be this… thoughtful,” he says. “He’s searching for the meaning of existence. Everyone knows that Dr. Frankenstein did it; the creature wants to know why. He’s all alone in the world, and he can’t get a straight answer out of Frankenstein. His whole quest is to justify his existence.”

The creature itself is a far cry from the stereotypical clunky thing with bolts in its neck, stumbling around and grunting. Quentin C. Jenkins, the Saint Francis freshman who plays the young creature, describes his character as being almost childlike. “His movements are straight to the point, almost blunt, very inexpressive,” Jenkins says. “I learn how to read, to communicate, and then I develop a sense of morals.”

In many respects, the young creature is a lot like his creator — except for the part about developing morals. Young Frankenstein (pardon the pun) is immature and doesn’t know how to act around adults. “He doesn’t know how to deal with pain,” says Eric Toy (young Victor). “That’s why he creates the monster, because he doesn’t know how to deal with death and that loss.” Toy adds that despite what Victor becomes and what he does, he’s ultimately a tragic figure who just doesn’t understand the ethical questions of his work.

One person in young Victor’s life who perhaps does see where Victor’s work is heading is his mentor Professor Krempke (Wayne Schaltenbrand). Krempke has his misgivings, yet he’s not immune to the allures of scientific ambition. “By the time he meets Victor, he’s a has-been,” says Shaltenbrand. “At first he doesn’t approve — he’s against man playing God — but in the end, after Victor is successful, he wants to get in on it. He’s desperate to get some recognition for himself.”

Of course, every tragedy dealing with hubris and ambition needs its innocent, and in Playing With Fire it’s Elizabeth (Kristin Jones), young Victor’s bride. Jones, a junior at Saint Francis, says she hasn’t played many characters like Elizabeth before. “She’s very patient and motherly,” Jones says. “She’s in love with Victor, but she doesn’t really understand him. He’s not open with her, and she’s confused.”

The cast of Playing With Fire is made up of three students and three veterans of local theater. Freshman Eric Toy says he did a lot of acting in high school, usually musicals and comedies, and he wanted to try his hands at serious drama. “It’s great to work with real actors,” he says of Matusik, Schaltenbrand, and Hermes. “Everyone is very serious about they’re doing. It’s challenging, but it’s fun.”

The play will also be the first production at Saint Francis new 500-seat theater in the former Abundant Life Tabernacle church. Beauchamp is looking forward to using the space. The stage is a raked stage — placed at an angle — and above the actors is a 10’ round scrim that will display images depicting Milton’s Paradise Lost (a work often referenced by the creature) and the early anatomy drawings of Andreas Vesalius. “It helps set the tone of the show, that this isn’t the campy bolts in his head, stumbling monster,” Beauchamp says.

But as excited as he is about the potential of the theater space, he’s really interested in seeing the audience’s reaction to the subject matter. “Frankenstein brings this creature to life, and then abandons it,” Beauchamp says. “He comes to his conclusions by fair means or foul without wondering, if he goes through with this, what is he really going to have? Ultimately, he creates something that causes him a lot of destruction. If the audience doesn’t leave without wanting to talk or have questions or discuss, then I really dropped the ball.”

The University of Saint Francis presents Barbara Field’s Playing with Fire.
Saturday, October 27 at 8 PM; Sunday October 28 at 2 PM; Thursday, November 1st at 8 PM; Friday, November 2nd at 8 PM; Saturday, November 3rd at 8 PM; and Sunday, November 4 at 2 PM.
North Campus Auditorium off Spring Street
Tickets: $8. Doors open 30 minutes before show time.
For more information contact Patricia Edwards at (260) 434-7536.

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