Etcetera, the late-night series at Live Theatre Workshop, has developed a reputation for fearless programming. Audiences and critics alike have cheered Etcetera's staging of experimental, offbeat and ambitious works for more than 10 years, the highlight of which was probably Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the thrilling rock musical that knocked innumerable socks off a few years back.
But Etcetera may finally have met its match with its latest offering, an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The Barbara Field play, presented just in time for Halloween, imagines a final meeting (at the North Pole!) between the haunted Victor Frankenstein and his hideous creation.
Playing with Fire (After Frankenstein) is a perfect title because, for one thing, any adaptation of the nearly 200-year-old gothic novel is indeed playing with fire. Artists across several generations have found out the hard way that Frankenstein can burn you in multiple ways.
As countless movie adaptations have demonstrated (the first, made in 1910, predates Hollywood), the source material is loaded with traps for anyone who hopes to bring it to the stage or screen. The many failed adaptations—there are literally too many to count—have usually been guilty of stilted stabs at poetry or silly theatrics intended to scare.
Etcetera has managed a fatal fall into both traps: It's pretentious and ridiculous.
Let's start with the iconic creature, here depicted as a hulking old hobo in a flasher's overcoat with a splash of white makeup. One doesn't envy any actor asked to take on a character so cemented in popular culture, and Terry Erbe gives it his best shot, yelling with great dramatic fervor in a baritone that might remind you of Katharine Hepburn.
It doesn't work, alas, and neither does Stephen Frankenfield's equally loud and humorless turn as the monster's maker. If one hopes for a laugh now and then, it might be because there's so little horror and so much ponderous declaiming.
The playwright's conceit, a climactic meeting between the mad doctor and the cobbled-together creature with no name, sounds like it would be interesting. But even with flashbacks to young Frankenstein (Nowell Kral) and the newly made monster (Joshua Silvain, looking like Conan the Barbarian), the reality is less so.
The play, directed by Ken Phillips, also features less-than-animated interactions between Frankenstein and his doomed bride Elizabeth (nicely played by Kelsie Williams) and between Frankenstein and his curious professor (Matthew Copley).
Because we've all seen so many variations of Mary Shelley's work (the literary gift that keeps on giving), we long for something unexpected when we take our seats for Playing with Fire. But after this Frankenstein, during which Field asks big questions in less than compelling fashion, we have a question of our own: Why did she bother?
Her play, first staged in 1988 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, adds precious little to the Frankenstein heap. Instead, it makes us yearn for a hint of monsters past, from the bolt-necked Boris Karloff to the super-duper Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein to the sweet-muscled beauty brought to life by Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Playing with Fire (After Frankenstein) is closer in tone to Kenneth Branagh's 1994 debacle Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which demonstrated just how tedious this enduring story could be in the wrong hands.
The Etcetera actors, it should be said, approach the play with admirable seriousness of purpose. It's worth applauding their effort, but the director ends the production without a curtain call—always a mistake.
Part of the reason this 90-minute exercise feels overlong is the haphazard lighting, which too often leaves the cast floundering in the dark. When audiences can't see faces, it adds nothing to the mood and makes it all too easy to tune out.