‘The Gravedigger’ imagines the missing pieces of Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

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For over 196 years, there’s been a mystery embedded in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

The iconic horror novel penned in 1818 opens with Dr. Victor Frankenstein floating through an ice-bound hell, trapped in the desolate wasteland of the Arctic. Raving and almost dead, Victor is plucked from an iceberg by a passing ship, where he recounts his gruesome story to the ship’s captain. It’s a saga of alchemy, monomania, fatal egotism and purloined body parts that ends with the slaughter of everyone the good doctor loves. Having created a murderous monster, Victor is now chasing him across the world, determined to kill him.

The mystery swirls around the missing chunk of time between the Victor’s pursuit through the polar regions and brutal strangulation of his new bride back in Switzerland some months earlier. With “The Gravedigger: A Tale of Frankenstein’s Monster,” playwright and First Folio Theatre artistic associate Joseph Zettelmaier fills in the gaps between Victor’s soul-crushing grief at losing his bride and his ferocious quest to bring the murderer to justice.

The world premiere of the chilling new drama is being staged by Oak Brook’s First Folio Theatre through Nov. 2 at Mayslake Peabody Estate.

“The setting is perfect,” says Zettelmaier. “That mansion is so beautiful and so creepy.”

‘THE GRAVEDIGGER’ WHEN: Through Nov. 2 WHERE: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook TICKETS:$22-$39 INFO: Visit FirstFolio.org

Set entirely in a Bavarian cemetery, “The Gravedigger” is an eerie combination of gothic horror story and philosophical conundrum that plays out in the twined journeys of Victor Frankenstein (Doug MacKechnie) and the Monster (Joshua Carroll).

“You’re watching the monster’s journey toward humanity. And at the same time, the Doctor’s journey away from humanity,” says Zettelmaier. “Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a man who had everything — wealth, education, a good family. He loses it all in the course of the novel. The only thing he’s left with is the desire to kill. The monster, on the other hand, is slowly figuring out what it means to be human, to care about people.”

In “The Gravedigger,” the Monster’s evolution also features an outcast Romani traveler (Simina Contras) and the deceptively unassuming titular cemetery worker (Craig Spidle).

“This is a play that asks some really great existential questions,” says Vesely. “What does it mean to be a human being? When do we get a soul? At birth? Before? Are we the product of the way we’re treated? Is it our environment? Both?”

Shelley’s novel probes a similar array of existential questions, as well as provides a telling commentary on the fear and amazement that greeted the fast-paced scientific breakthroughs of her era. “Many people in the early 19th century viewed science as an affront to religion,” says Zettelmaier. “Maybe we don’t have quite the same degree of that attitude now, but it’s still out there. Think about the first time we split the atom or cloned something. There’s always this question — yes we can do it, but should we be doing it?”

“One of the reasons the story of Frankenstein is so enduring is that people can relate to being misunderstood, and the Creature is very definitely misunderstood,” Zettelmaier concludes. “It’s impossible not to sympathize with someone who has been rejected at every turn, who has almost never known kindness. But at the same time you’re like, this guy’s perfectly capable of snapping a human neck without a second thought. And that’s just scary.”

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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