By Thom deMartino
The barrel of the pistol trembles.
The aged Victor Frankenstein (Scott Keister), gun in unsteady hand, sways deliriously upon an icy plateau in the emptiness of the frozen northern wastes. His monstrous creation he has pursued for decades stands, finally, before him – within range and dead to rights – quietly staring at him, unflinching…waiting.
The shivering man does not pull the trigger.
Instead, with parched lips, voice cracking like the surrounding ice, the creator speaks for the first time in innumerable years to his creation:
“Do you dream…? Do you sleep…?”
It is then that the audience realizes that “Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein)” is not your stereotypical horror story: and it is up to the viewer to decide who the true monster within the tale really is.
Frankenstein has finally caught up with his quarry at the North Pole, after a globe-spanning, decades-long pursuit: his creation, an abomination he has sworn vengeance against – yet finding himself still driven to study it, in an unrelenting search for more “data.” But the scientist is not the only one seeking explanation; his unexpectedly eloquent Creature (Paul Jasser) has queries of his own.
The pair make a truce to answer each others’ questions, through the seemingly endless day of the northern summer solstice.
“Why do you hate me?” demands the piecemeal man: because of his hideousness, responds his creator.
“Why did you destroy my life?” Frankenstein spits back at him.
“Because you hate me” responds the Creature, without irony.
As the pair go round and round with their queries, accusations and rationalizations, the scientist’s memories of the distant past begin to blur with the present; as he wistfully watches his younger, arrogant and dangerously ambitious self Victor (Derick Gonzales) play out the events that will inevitably lead him to this fateful confrontation.
There are the pivotal points: the discussions he shares with his mentor, the droll Professor Krempe (Jack Clark), teaching him to be mindful of both the limits of science, while keeping the flexibility of mind to integrate the newest discoveries that surpass and redefine those limits; or the interplay between himself and his beloved Elizabeth (Katherine Heflin), his childhood love, and her struggles to reach him, despite his detachment and scientific obsession…
And then, there is the terrifying moment of unnaturally bestowed life.
The ghastly visage of the reanimated Adam (Reagan Pettigrew) strikes horror into the young Victor, as he flees from his creation, leaving the pitiable creature with no guidance – to fend for himself, in an alien world that will perceive him as nothing more than a monster.
The past and present flow seamlessly into each other, a Möbius strip of time – but what future may lie beyond for the pair, fates bound together by resurrection, retribution… perhaps… redemption?
In these first autumnal weeks of October, Golden West College is offering a very different take on the Frankenstein mythos with the Tom Amen-directed “Playing With Fire”: the story becoming a philosophical exploration of the relationship between creator and creation, what it means to truly have humanity — whether the search for knowledge is really an end unto itself, and if the cost of that search is worth the individual’s soul… or their ultimate estrangement from humankind.
More than just a monster, Jasser’s Creature is a soulful being: having had decades to contend with the mother of all existential crises — all the while pursued with a murderous vengeance by his very creator, when all he truly wants is acceptance, to understand and find his place in the world. He is by turns resentful, angry, and remorseful… exhausted by this life, and yet finding himself clinging to it, in his search for meaning.
His younger self, as “Adam,” is played by Pettigrew with equal parts innocence and fury – struggling without guidance to comprehend this existence he has been unnaturally born into, and to understand the culture that surrounds and vilifies him, after being cast out by the only semblance of a father that he has ever known.
Clark’s Professor Krempe is an intriguing amalgam of wise man and fool: playfully teasing the often somber and fixated Victor about the limits of knowledge, and pushing the young man’s boundaries — perhaps recognizing the aspiring scientist’s atrophied empathy.
The lovely, kind and endlessly patient Elizabeth (portrayed by Heflin) herself has to contend with that emotional cypher that is her beau: in fact, she is seemingly the only one Victor shows any inkling of emotional vulnerability to. She is perhaps not as much blinded by her love for him, as she is optimistic that she can help cultivate a fuller, healthier emotional capacity from him.
It is therefore a tragic irony, that the Creature of both periods himself appears to contain the depth of feeling that both eras of Frankenstein lack. Both the scientist and his handiwork can be almost likened to dark reflections of one another: each containing some of what the other lacks, and yet almost somehow complimentary to each other — if only each could let go of their resentment and murderous rage.
It is therein that Scott Keister’s mastery of his character’s tragic flaws shines.
The creator initially stubbornly refuses any self-reflection or taking of responsibility for his creation, allowing his fury at the events of the past to eclipse any sympathy, any recognition of the humanity in the Creature: barely able to bring himself to gaze upon the elder Adam…but over the course of the tale, the viewer begins to see some cracks in his mask of disdain.
For all his expressed loathing for the “beast”, why does he not pull that trigger? Could there possibly be a spark of empathy — even shame — somewhere beneath the layers of anger and rationalizations about data? The audience leaves the theater pondering how much self-awareness and regret the elder scientist might actually have been suppressing for all these years.
“Playing With Fire” is an enthralling, thought-provoking, complex piece of theater: a psychological exploration of guilt and responsibility, that challenges the viewer’s perception on whether humanity is implicit in being human…or if it must be cultivated, even discovered, within oneself.
“Playing With Fire (After Frankenstein).” Scott Keister, Paul Jasser and Katherine Heflin star in this re-imagining of the Frankenstein mythos, that posits the question whether the true monster of the tale may be its maker. Playing through Sunday, October 13 at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15751 Gothard St, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Tickets available through the box office at 714-895-8150, x1 or at www.gwctheater.com.
Categories: Arts & Leisure