Listen: Guthrie Frankenstein

In the stage adaption of Mary Shelley’s classic story, the monster and his creator wrestle with timeless questions at the Gutherie Theater.

The show marked the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's classic novel while revisiting ethical questions that are just as timely today.


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SPEAKER 1: Preview performances begin tomorrow night 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. Marianne Combs has our report.

MARIANNE COMBS: Most people associate Frankenstein with the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff.

SPEAKER 2: It's alive.

MARIANNE COMBS: In the movie, Dr. Frankenstein's monster is physically powerful, but mentally childlike. Unable to speak, he resorts to grunts and growls to express his grief and rage. But the film is 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 that insist on rejecting him. He and Dr. Frankenstein spend decades chasing each other, destroying what the other loves.

SPEAKER 3: Tell me the thoughts you have in the dark.

SPEAKER 4: You should know. You made me.

SPEAKER 3: Your mind wasn't part of my original calculation. Your imagination wasn't. I failed in that.

SPEAKER 4: No. Your failures were countless. You made a man without memory, without data. You gave him life. Then, you abandoned him.

SPEAKER 3: Tell me your secrets.

SPEAKER 4: Dissect my brain, and pluck them out.

SPEAKER 3: I thought I could access your mind by anatomising your brain. I would have done that long ago.

MARIANNE COMBS: 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.

BARBARA FIELD: He wants the contents of the creature's mind. And the creature wants to know why this guy made him, and if-- since he made him, why didn't he either love him or use him, or dedicate him to science, or something.

MARIANNE COMBS: Field says Shelley's Gothic novel might seem rather Gothic with its cutting up of dead bodies and reanimating corpses. But Field points out Shelley wrote the book in the early 1800s, at a time when scientists were doing just that. Field says some would attend public guillotines just so that they could get fresh parts.

BARBARA FIELD: 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.

MARIANNE COMBS: Field says at its heart, the story is about taking responsibility for your actions.

BARBARA FIELD: Be careful what you do, because everything you do has an implication. And who knows what the outcome is.

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

ROB MELROSE: 200 years ago, these things were speculative, and they're philosophically very interesting. Now these are becoming real. These questions are being worked on seriously by serious people.

MARIANNE COMBS: Melrose says Frankenstein isn't just about scientific ethics. It's about dreams and memory, and what we choose to remember.

ROB MELROSE: The way Barbara tells the story is with these flashes of memory that are the last flashes as you're about to die. You 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.

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

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

MARIANNE COMBS: Melrose says he 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. Covering the arts, I'm Marianne Combs. Minnesota Public Radio News.

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