"A parody of a god chasing the parody of the ideal man."
That quote from the Creature to his creator (Victor Frankenstein) happens late in Barbara Field's magical "Playing with Fire: After Frankenstein", but in many ways it encapsulates the essence of this sequel to Mary Shelly's 200+ year old masterpiece. Red Mask Players and Director Jamey Couyant deliver this philosophical whirlwind with stripped down elegance on a simple but stunning set in the intimate confines of the Kathryn Randolph theatre in Danville.
The "parody of a god" is Frankenstein. In his ego and brilliance, he dared to create life, however irresponsible or reckless that creation would prove to be. Now, in his dying days, he needs to examine his creation, and whether it is out of scientific curiosity, guilt, remorse, or love is left up to us to decide. Frankenstein is played with intense desperation and despair by Richard Lee Bridgman, while the younger version of himself shown through interwoven memories (Victor) is played by Brandon Moore. Moore, last seen by CU@TS as a raving Charles Manson in You Are Perfect, has the complicated task of showing us a younger, less burdened, more innocent man motivated by curiosity and brilliance. Moore does this well, and gives us an incremental, nuanced evolution (or, perhaps, devolution) towards Bridgman's tormented aged Frankenstein. Bridgman's commitment to character is reminiscent of Will Arnett's Gob Bluth from Arrested Development - theatrical and arrogant, but tormented by the inability of his magnificence to be realized. In fact, the Book of Job is very on-point with this imagination of the suffering and unfortunate lives of both man and creature.
The critical role of the Creature (the "parody of the ideal man") was given to a theatre novice, Justin Smith. It defies belief that this is Smith's first stage appearance, as he has such command over the complex vocal and physical emotions and expressions playing this iconic role requires. Delivering his lines through the expelling of heavy, labored breathing, Smith heartbreakingly and movingly explains how the Creature has stayed alive through so much hardship because "Life, though only an accumulation of cruelties, is dear to me…". His struggle find "humanity" when he was made "with no memory or data" left him so confused about life and life's meaning that he finds himself dropping philosophical notes throughout - "I did not know what I was, but I did know there was an I."
All of the costuming seemed out of a 19th century period piece, but could pass as contemporary - we don't care as the story's questions and dilemmas are timeless. The Frankensteinian makeup - so easily butchered, was compelling, dramatic and believable - almost realistic. The younger version of the Creature (a skillful imitation of Smith's take, by Isaiah Easton) had somewhat distractingly dissimilar scarring and sewing patterns - perhaps that can be corrected or serves a purpose/narrative that I couldn't grasp.
The cast is rounded out by Amanda Brown as Victor's young love, Elizabeth, and Red Mask legend Edward Sant as the heavily accented and unexpectedly comic Professor Krempe. Brown often seemed to be stifling a laugh as though she were in on a private inside joke of some kind - perhaps that was conveying her innocence and love, but I also wondered if it was a reaction of awe to her presence upon such a magnificent set and with such inspired performances surrounding her on the stage.
Don't miss this chance to dive deep into thought and see skilled actors tell a brilliantly conceived final chapter to an iconic saga. You will find yourself contemplating contemporary issues of artificial intelligence and whether such a thing can exist, but if it can what the boundaries are for it - and the responsibilities we have in creating it.
Congratulations to Red Mask and all involved with this incredible show!