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Guthrie brings 'Frankenstein' back to life

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Elijah Alexander, acting as Creature, rehearses a scene.
Elijah Alexander, acting as Creature, rehearses a scene for "Frankenstein - Playing with Fire".
Evan Frost | MPR News

Preview performances begin this weekend for "Frankenstein: Playing with Fire" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The show marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's classic novel while revisiting ethical questions that are just as timely today.

People whose most vivid image of Frankenstein comes from the 1931 Boris Karloff film will be on unfamiliar ground. The movie monster is physically powerful but mentally childlike. Unable to speak, he resorts to grunts and growls to express his grief and rage.

That's a far cry from Mary Shelley's novel, which envisions a far more complex relationship between the creature and his maker. Her creature is an intellectual who reads literature and studies the humans who insist on rejecting him. He and Dr. Frankenstein spend decades chasing each other, destroying what the other loves.

"Your failures were countless!" the monster says. "You made a man without memory, without data — you gave him life, then you abandoned him!"

"Tell me your secrets," Victor Frankenstein urges.

"Dissect my brain and pluck them out!"

Ryan Colbert rehearses a scene from "Frankenstein – Playing with Fire."
Ryan Colbert rehearses a scene from "Frankenstein - Playing with Fire" as Victor, the young Dr. Frankenstein.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"If I thought I could access your mind by anatomizing your brain, I would have done that long ago!"

Playwright Barbara Field first adapted the novel for the Guthrie Theater 30 years ago. Her play starts in the Arctic, with Victor Frankenstein and his creature in their final confrontation.

"He wants the contents of the creature's mind," Field said. "And the creature wants to know why this guy made him, and since he made him, why didn't he either love him or use him or dedicate him to science or something?"

Field said Shelley's gothic novel might seem rather — well, gothic, with its cutting up of dead bodies and reanimating corpses. But Field pointed out that Shelley wrote the book in the early 1800s, at a time when scientists were doing just that. Some would attend public guillotines just so they could get fresh parts, she said.

Playwright Barbara Field surrounded by the creative team.
Playwright Barbara Field (center), surrounded by the creative team, in rehearsal for the Guthrie Theater production of Frankenstein - Playing with Fire by Barbara Field (from the novel by Mary Shelley).
Photo courtesy of Nathan Dale Studios

"That's what they did! They were catching heads and running back to the lab — not because they were evil, but because of a real scientific hunger and a desire to know," Field explained.

At its heart, she said, the story is about taking responsibility for your actions: "Be careful what you do, because everything you do has an implication, and who knows what the outcome is?"

Director Rob Melrose said Shelley's novel is perhaps even more relevant today than when she wrote it. He pointed to the latest forays into cloning, artificial intelligence and gene editing.

"Two hundred years ago, these things were speculative and philosophically very interesting," he said. "Now these are becoming very real! These questions are being worked on seriously by serious people."

Melrose said "Frankenstein" isn't just about scientific ethics; it's about dreams and memory, and what we choose to remember.

"The way Barbara tells the story is with these flashes of memory that are kind of the last flashes as you're about to die," he said. "You kind of relive your life. But what's especially interesting and exciting is Barbara has the memories interacting with the present, and the present interacting with the memories, so the memories start talking."

Robert Melrose, right, speaks with Zachary Fine, playing Frankenstein.
"Frankenstein - Playing with Fire" director Robert Melrose, right, speaks with Zachary Fine, playing Frankenstein, during a rehearsal inside the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As a dying Victor Frankenstein is confronted by his younger self, and the ghost of his fiancee, Melrose said, he's forced to reckon with some bitter truths.

"What happens when you put your achievements ahead of the people you love to get whatever it is you're chasing?" he asked. "And I think both the book and the play give a pretty devastating answer to what can happen if you go too far in that direction, and that's exactly what Victor does."

Melrose hopes audiences leave asking the same questions that Mary Shelley asked two centuries ago. But he also wants to give them a really satisfying monster story, just in time for Halloween.