Bold sound and set design elevates the Guthrie’s ‘Frankenstein’ to new heights

Elijah Alexander (Creature, upper left), Jason Rojas (Adam, center left), Zachary Fine (Frankenstein, center right), and Ryan Colbert (Victor, far right) show the versatility and other-worldliness of scenic designer Michael Locher’s set in the Guthrie Theater’s production of “Frankenstein–Playing with Fire” // Photo by Dan Norman

The creak of shifting ice and horror-film undertones are the first sounds welcoming audience members into the Wurtle Thrust stage at Guthrie Theater. A gleaming black, sloping mound dominates the set; a black disk of a sun glows ominously in the upper-left corner of the stage.

The sounds, composed and designed by Cliff Caruthers, and set, designed by Michael Locher, don’t immediately register as ominous precursors to the impending performance. They are simply there, lurking in the background as people take their seats, flip through their programs, and chat while waiting for the play to begin. But both are just as important as any other player involved in bringing to life “Frankenstein–Playing with Fire,” which opened September 22 and closes October 27. Moreover, it is precisely due to the covertness of Caruthers’ and Locher’s work that this production rises above the bulk of more traditional adaptations.

Mary Shelley’s now-classic novel, considered the first work of science fiction, was first adapted for the stage in 1823 and has been reimagined countless times since. This version, by Minnesota playwright Barbara Field, was commissioned in 1988 by then Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright, and resurrected this year for the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s tale of death, life, creator, and creation—and the relationship between them all.

The action takes place in the North Pole during the summer solstice, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein is dying. He’s spent his entire life chasing his creature, and the two have now reached “the edge of the world.” There’s nothing left to do but confront one another and ask the myriad questions that have built up between them for the last several decades.

A moment of tenderness between Dr. Frankenstein (Zachary Fine) and Creature (Elijah Alexander) as they rehash the years they’ve spent chasing and torturing each other in an attempt to find closure // Photo by Dan Norman

On its own, Field’s script is powerful enough to evoke the emotions and introspection inherently present in Shelley’s original work. But it’s the extras—the sound, light, set, and costumes—that drill home the lessons of life and death, responsibility and ego, and elevate this version of “Frankenstein” from being another thought-provoking night at the theater to an all-encompassing journey into a world that’s so remote yet so familiar that the viewer leaves feeling discombobulated and craving theological discussions.

Set designer Locher’s first instinct after reading Field’s script was to drown the stage in blazing white—what he calls “the Fortress of Solitude” approach. But after talking with the show’s director, Rob Melrose, the two decided that that should be their plan B—that, were they to take that approach, they would be missing something. “The play was richer, more exciting than that,” Locher says.

His second—and ultimately final—approach for the set was the complete opposite of his first, opting instead to create a “phantom planet”: black ice, black sun, a floor that’s the opposite color of the icebergs rising out of it. Essentially, Locher says, he strove to create a landscape that looked like a photo negative—or like something imagined by someone who is deeply hallucinatory. “Everything is the inverse of the way light and shadow should work,” he says. “I wanted it to be visually disarming enough to let the audience know they are not in a landscape they can trust; they’re in the Arctic as Mary Shelley and Victor would have seen it, and it’s very, very unfamiliar.”

The end of act one, when Victor (Ryan Colbert) animates his creation (Adam, played by Jason Rojas) is punctuated by the illumination of a 20-foot-wide fluorescent “V” designed by Locher. “It’s meant to represent Victor’s mind being broken and the sky ripping open,” Locher says. “That’s the moment that Victor broke the world and initiated this version of perverse science.” // Photo by Dan Norman

Locher’s inspiration for the design came into focus as he mused on why Shelley chose the Arctic for the setting of her characters’ final confrontation. “Most of us wouldn’t go to a place that extreme. We know what it looks like now, but in 1818 it was an exotic, spooky frontier. It occurred to me she chose the most unfamiliar place possible—that back then, Arctic exploration was like space exploration. She went out of her way to get to the edge of existence and make it feel that they [Dr. Frankenstein and his creature] had been propelled a million miles from life, all the way to the edge of universe.”

Locher says attempting to capture that sense of foreboding and mystery resulted in “the riskiest set I’ve done in long time—both in that’s it’s a strange, radical concept, but also because it’s on on a big, renowned stage with an audience seated 180 degrees around.” But the effect works. By the middle of the first act, one feels as if they’ve been transported to this foreign land along with Victor and his creature—trapped in a world of inverse reality and relentless flashbacks, regret and, somehow, hope.

Adding to this disorientation and other-worldliness are the undulating, indecipherable tones created by Caruthers. Having worked on a different adaptation of “Frankenstein” with Melrose and Locher 10 years ago, Caruthers already had a framework for the effect he wanted to create. But whereas that production had been in a small black-box theater, this iteration—in the cavernous Wurtle Thrust space—posed a host of new challenges. “It’s an enormous space. From my perspective I was trying to get speakers in all the far corners, to use the architecture and make things feel as big as the space is,” Caruthers says. “It’s hard to get everyone in a space like that seeing and hearing the same show. […] All things being equal, I might have done more crazy elements, but then you end up destroying people in certain seats. Instead I worked in a way so that every gesture does the same thing for the majority of the audience as much as possible.”

Despite these challenges, Caruthers still managed to infuse the production with ample “crazy elements,” he says. Using live recordings of singers that he conducted “to make interesting sounds—not music, per se,” electronic tones, a recording of a glacier calving, sounds created by pitching down several octaves the noise made by a cracking ice tray, and myriad digital approaches, Caruthers’ soundtrack serves as an additional character to the production, adding drama, depth, irony, and levity where no spoken line or facial expression could.

The magic of theater is that it can transport you to another world and time using only the effects able to be crafted from the tangible elements of sound, light, set, and props. When done well, the effect resonates far beyond the final bows and sticks with you deeply enough to make you contemplate not only the performance but the messages ingrained within it—an effect most definitely accomplished by “Playing with Fire.”

About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.