Playing with Fire

Through Sunday, Oct. 8
Theatre in the Park, Raleigh

It’s the endgame every chess player dreads: a board with only two pieces left. When players are equally matched, the stratagems of troop reductionmurder by gameplay, in other wordsresult in the irresolvable equilibrium of a stalemate.

Or do they? As with Nick Dear’s striking adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which London’s National Theatre produced and broadcast to theaters worldwide in 2011, playwright Barbara Field’s version, Playing with Fire (After Frankenstein), now showing at Theatre in the Park, begins at the end, with two figures on a desolate field of ice. Only one of them is standing: the creature to which the title character gave nothing more than a very literal spark of life. Nearby, his creator lies sprawled on the ice, his fingers already gray with frostbiteclearly a man still pursuing revenge on his last legs.

Field takes that final pairing even further than the National production did. With Frankenstein (Tony Pender) weakened, his emboldened creature (Mark Zumbach) draws near until the two are within earshot. As their bloodlust subsides, it is replaced by something unexpected: mutual curiosity. Thus begins the pair’s first dialogue in years.

After a cry from the depths, the creature earnestly transmits the details of his life while the doctor dispassionately records them. Before long, though, the tables turn, and the creature’s equally probing questions become a truly final examination for a creator who has never fully invested in any human relationship.

When an irritated Frankenstein calls this back and forth an unendurable catechism, the term is more accurate than he knows. Incessantly, the creature grills the doctor: Why was he created? Why build an intricate machine that has no purpose? Why would a creator abandon his creation without clothing, feeding, teaching, protecting, or loving it?

Such questions form the base of religion and philosophy. It is surely no coincidence that the imagery in director Ira David Wood III’s flashback scenes of a younger Frankenstein (Ira David Wood IV), his bride, Elizabeth (Olivia Fitts), college mentor Professor Krempe (John Honeycutt), and an earlier version of the creature (Ford Nelson) invoke the crucifixion and its aftermath in Michelangelo’s Pietà.

But despite the script’s strong spiritual and ethical elements, this production rarely rises above melodrama. Last Saturday, moments of pathos only sometimes slipped out from beneath the inexpertly applied prosthetics marring Zumbach’s visage, and Pender was still reaching for the necessary emotional range. Elizabeth was underdeveloped, and Wood IV and Honeycutt stayed deep in their comfort zones. Like its subject, this show was still in search of its full humanity.