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STAGE REVIEW : It’s Alive--Again: ‘Playing With Fire’ Gives Frankenstein’s Monster a Soul

In “Playing With Fire,” Barbara Field’s spin on the Frankenstein tale, the monster is all grown up.

Forget the usual grunting behemoth with malice on his mind. This middle-ager thinks in complicated terms (he refers to the “sanctimonious platitudes of mankind”) and feels deeply (he describes prayer as “a kind of ecstasy”). He even reads; his favorite book is “Paradise Lost.”

He’s also one of the saddest creations around. If anybody’s got a soul, it’s this guy. That’s really the point of Field’s reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic story of horror, science and the divine: The creature is more of a man than his maker, the cynical and barren Dr. Frankenstein.

This play, first staged at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater in 1988 and in its Orange County premiere at Orange Coast College, begins with a meeting of monster and man at the North Pole. The creature (Michael Miller), wearing a “Darkman” cape and hat, wants to know the whys of his existence. He also wants love.

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Dr. Frankenstein (John Gault) ostensibly wants to take a look at and study what his creation has become, but really he seeks absolution for his “ungodly” act. From this point, Field offers much thoughtful, if obvious, dialogue on the nature of man and the danger of unbridled science. Gene-splicers beware! Also, the bonds of father and son are explored, along with the responsibility we have to one another.

Beyond this, “Playing With Fire” attempts to reconstruct the Frankenstein story with numerous flashbacks that are intriguing for their glances into the doctor’s history, his love of cousin Elizabeth (Shari Heatherly) and the early direction of his experiments.

At OCC, director John Ferzacca goes for the melodramatic too often, Mike Patrick’s modernistic musical underscoring is pushy, and the acting edges toward the overblown. But there are images that stand out. With David Dunbrack’s strobes flashing, David Scaglione’s ice-white set offers up a surreal vision.

Then there’s the creature. Paul Thompson keeps the makeup minimal; this isn’t a gory ghoul, which is good. (It is a little off-putting, though, to see him with such a nice haircut.) Miller, a local actor who has impressed before, gets worked up every now and then but still presents an affecting portrayal. One feels sympathy for this character, even though he has been done to death in dozens of B movies.

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But as Dr. Frankenstein, Gault is too mannered and the range of emotions he’s suppose to convey (there’s a basketful, from guilt to love to self-loathing) aren’t always convincing. Eric Person is stiff but believable as the doctor as a young man, and Scaglione provides the play’s few humorous patches as Prof. Krempe, one of Frankenstein’s scholarly influences.

‘PLAYING WITH FIRE’

An Orange Coast College production of Barbara Field’s drama. Directed by John Ferzacca. With John Gault, Michael Miller, Eric Person, Cage Beals, Shari Heatherly, David Scaglione and Karen Rett. Set by David Scaglione. Makeup by Paul Thompson. Lighting by David Dunbrack. Sound by Mike Patrick. Plays through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Drama Lab, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $5 to $7. (714) 432-5880.


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