An (Incomplete) List of Themes and Issues in Frankenstein

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Top: Frankenstein at MIA’s “At Home with Monsters” exhibit (source: author photo) Bottom: “Frankenstein: Playing with Fire” (source: guthrietheater.org)

I am obsessed with Frankenstein. This is not new. I first read the book in middle school and, though I didn’t understand a lot of it, I fell deep into the rabbit hole of loving Victor Frankenstein’s tragic story and the Creature’s isolation and outsider view. I watched the Universal film from 1931 and its sequel (though both films are nothing like the book). I read a series of books for teens based off the Universal films. I watched Young Frankenstein most Halloweens (and saw the musical adaptation when it toured here). I kept rereading the book. I wrote my own modern adaptation that I self-published as an e-book (please don’t find it; it’s terrible). I grew jealous of everyone who was able to see the Benedict Cumberbatch/ Johnny Lee Miller adaption in the UK (directed by Danny Boyle – I’m finally seeing this November when a live taping is encored by the MSP Film Society at St Anthony Main theater). I’ve read about Mary Shelley and her famous mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the book Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. Some of my favorite creative types also love Frankenstein (notably, Guillermo Del Toro, who I am likewise obsessed with).

In short, I am a huge Frankenstein nerd and I am very vocal about this. So when the Guthrie announced that they would be doing a production of Frankenstein: Playing with Fire in their 2018-2019 season, I was intrigued and a little worried. I love the story but I’ve seen bad adaptations that haunt me (looking at you, Fringe). But I love the production at the Guthrie, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the play being written and the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication itself. In fact, it’s probably my favorite show that I’ve seen at the G (and by this weekend, will hold the record of the most times I’ve seen the same production of a show). Because (for all transparent reasons) I work in the Guthrie box office, I won’t review the show. But I have been thinking about the story a great deal and, after rereading the book and spending some time with Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the importance of Shelley’s writing that I wanted to share. Without further ado:

An (Incomplete) List of Themes and Issues in “Frankenstein”

  • playing with fire/ myth of Prometheus/ playing God
  • pseudoscience versus real science
  • environmentalism/ respect for the forces of nature and scientific laws
  • nature versus nurture in the raising of children
  • healthcare (why does Victor leap to the conclusion that the answer to avoiding death is to avoid birthing humans and create life from the dead rather than working to better healthcare? Especially central to the way the play adapts the book where Victor’s mother dies in childbirth)
  • ways in which the Creature reflects what living with mental illness is like (anxiety and depression makes those who live with it feel monstrous, like outsiders, etc.)
  • who really is a monster – what is actually horrific in this story
  • skepticism versus wonder and how they get convoluted
  • overlooking objective truth in order something you want to be true possible
  • having more questions than answers in life
  • education and how we learn/who we teach
  • our lack of understanding around what makes us human/sentient/ personality/ the belief in a soul
  • desire/hunger for knowledge
  • technology and how its advancement is outpacing in our ability to deal with and grapple with it
  • consequences of actions/shame/guilt
  • questions around morality and what is moral

All in all, I really love this story. If you get the chance to see the Guthrie production or the Danny Boyle screening at St Anthony Main, due. And why not pick up the book over Halloween? (I want to get my hands on the 1818 edition myself – I hear it’s better than the more populous 1833 edition.)

Thank you for entertaining my passion surrounding Frankenstein. I’ll be here all October with all of your gothic horror story needs.

Little Women (Jungle Theater)

Jungle • Little Women
Photo credit: Rich Ryan

About the Show: 

Based on the much loved novel by Louisa May Alcott, this play follows the story of Jo, a young woman growing up in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and her three sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy. The three struggle through the hardships of war and the difficulties of being a young woman in a society that has certain expectations for them while their neighbor, Laurie, has similar struggles as a young man. As the five come of age, the world around them changes and their relationship and connections to one another change as well.

Why I Chose to See It: 

This play was commissioned by the Jungle to playwright Kate Hamill (whose adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was performed in the Guthrie’s 2016-2017 season). Hamill is a wonderful adaptor and she’s a female playwright who’s work I eagerly follow. This play is a world premiere and I would see anything Sarah Rasmussen directs. I grew up around the story of Little Women and, though the ending troubles me, it feels like a strong part of my childhood (though I only read the full novel for the first time in the week preceding the show).

My Response:

This play is beautiful. It has all the charm and elegance of the original story (and all the same plot points and character quirks) with a distinctly modern edge. The language feels contemporary without being utterly 21st century and the conversations are loosened from the 19th century novelistic style to a more conversational stage-friendly tone. The events in the play – especially Jo and Laurie’s conflict with their gender identity and expectations, Aunt March’s bigotry and classism, and Meg’s frustration with being an overwhelmed mother with an unhelpful husband are all seen through a lens of where we currently sit in the present day and the show gains a fresh, powerful flavor from this stance. What makes this story so compelling is the words it gives to the struggle around women in America, especially women from everyday lives who may not have great adventures and epic stories. These women still have stories that deserve to be heard and, in this heartwarming and heartbreaking play, Alcott and Hamill work beautifully together to let these stories be heard. And at the end of the story, when things feel they end not as we would like, Hamill uses her power as a playwright and Jo’s own character to reflect on this tension and give us some satisfaction even as we cry through the curtain call.

Also, the cast for this show is absolutely marvelous. Every single actor on stage nails the characters they embody. The March sisters themselves work as a fine-tuned quartet and each of their emotional extremes and personalities work in harmony with one another (even when that harmony involves personal discord between the characters). Also, if you’re a fan of Michael Hanna, he leaps out of a trunk. You’re welcome.

Overall:

Go see this show. I continually feel tension with the idea of “classics” in American literature and the assumption that there are stories that everyone knows. However, this is one American story that is worth telling – and this adaptation clearly shows why. You do not have to be familiar with the original book to enjoy this play and you certainly don’t need to be a fan of the classics to attend this show. Better yet if you aren’t. This story is for the person who wonders if their story is worth telling and what to make of a world where they feel they don’t fit in.

General Information

Little Women is written by Kate Hamill and directed by Sarah Rasmussen. It is playing now through October 21st at the Jungle Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Jungle’s website.

Assassins

assassins
Source: facebook.com/rtcduluth

This previous weekend, I had the utter pleasure of joining Jill of Cherry and Spoon and Carol and Julie from Minnesota Theater Love for a little theater road trip to Duluth. Along with lots of delicious food, local brews, and local tunes, we attended Renegade Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in the lovely Zeitgeist Arts Space.

Full disclosure – I have wanted to see Assassins for years. It’s come up in a number of ways and might be the one thing that links all the different hats I wear in the theater world. It’s a dramaturg’s dream and incredibly inspiring as a playwright and I was elated to see it being done in Minnesota (with the added benefit of it being in Duluth. Because who doesn’t love an excuse to spend a weekend in Duluth?).

I was not disappointed. This dark, fierce, and wildly funny show traverses a strange territory – a carnival outside of time where eight successful and would-be presidential assassins meet in a shooting gallery to share their stories – often through the eyes of a character known only as the Balladeer – and questions what it means to win and lose, succeed and fail, and strive for the American Dream in a world of myths. At the heart of this is a dark, frightening root that doesn’t waver from the violence and cruelty of the assassins’ acts. But with Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s skill, this musical unfolds to be a very different beast than one that just focuses on how the killing occurred or trying to understand why the killing happened, ala a few History Channel documentaries I’ve tried to sit through (you know the one. Where they try and tell you John Wilkes Booth didn’t really die and he spent the rest of his life on a plantation in the South. Tell me one of you knows what I’m talking about). This doesn’t try to understand or empathize. It doesn’t try to forgive or explain away their actions. At the end of the show, they are still killers. But they are killers that look an awful lot like us.

Renegade did marvelous work with a very difficult show. There’s a lot of moving parts and only 90 minutes to reveal them all in. Andy Bennett is wonderfully compelling and persuasive as John Wiles Booth, Joe Cramer is a beautifully moving Czolgosz (especially in a moment in which Czolgosz describes his work making bottles in a factory), Nathan Payne is equally funny and frightening in his portrayal of Charles Guiteau, and Emily Bengston and Mary Foxy share a wonderful show-stealing scene with their interactions as Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (respectively). Jack Starr (Proprietor), Abe Curran (Balladeer), Alec Schroeder (Giuseppe Zangara), Matais Valero (John Hinckley), and Matt Smith (Sam Byck) are also great, leading us on the uncomfortable, down the rabbit hole-like path where things no longer look as clear and certain as they did at the start. Ensemble members Ole Dack, Kendra Carlson, Tonya Porter, and Kyle McMillan are also fantastic. With a strong band that dives into the unusual harmonies and shifting tempos led by Patrick Colvin, this performance did a marvelous job capturing the nuances and complexities in this script (however, I have to admit, I was not a fan of the intermission. I love the drive through to a climatic end and the 10 minute break threw me off).

Unless you’re a fanatic like me (or really, really well-versed in your presidential history), there’s a lot of assassins you won’t have heard of before in this performance. Most of us only know Booth and Oswald and, until I took a class in college that introduced me to this show and Sam Byck, I only knew those two as well. One reason I love this musical is because it presents to us history we all think we know – and shows us how much more there is to it, not just what we think we know, but what we don’t know and what cannot be known. And if you’re looking to learn more about the assassins (as I was after I first heard about the show) then there’s some really great books out there to help you out such as American Assassins by James W. Clarke, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard (on the assassination of Garfield), and The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller (on the assassination of McKinley). (These are just a few I’ve read. I’m continually looking for more, especially since I’d love to dramaturg this show. Hell, I’d love to direct it too.)

As a playwright, I’ve been thinking about what makes theater different and what can be done onstage that can’t be done in a book or a poem. Setting the story in a shooting gallery is something that works best visually and audibly, with the flashing lights, the targets with images of presidents on them, and sounds of gunshots. Theater can play with time and space and allow this upside-down place where assassins come together from all different times and make an argument for their perspective. This show takes on an added weight in the midst of a discussion on gun violence (especially in “The Gun Song”) and argue that guns don’t right wrongs – but there’s still a belief that that can and will.

I’m so happy to have seen Renegade’s work and I look forward to seeing their performances in the future (I see from their webpage that I missed Murder Ballad and [title of show] which kind of breaks my heart). I’m excited to see what their next season might bring – and possibly another theater road trip.

 

Assassins is written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman and directed by Katy Kelbacka. It is playing now through September 17th at Duluth’s Teatro Zuccone in the Zeitgeist Arts Space. Ticket and show information can be found at Renegade Theater’s website.