The Peabody Estate on an October night. The eerily intriguing botanical laboratory in a Swiss castle turned circus of the macabre. The spooky music. The trio of intense performances. The story that builds terror by twists and turns.
With the First Folio’s Theatre’s World Premiere production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Jigsaw Bride, director Hailey Rice unearths the tropes of classic horror and stitches the pieces of the corpse together with strong acting and sharp theatrical elements, to catch the lightning of Zettelmaier’s fresh take on an age-old monster story.
Zettelmaier is no stranger to the horror genre or, for that matter, First Folio Theatre. In 2014, he premiered The Gravedigger and then returned in 2016 with Dr. Seward’s Dracula. Along the way, he has earned his bones by borrowing and then breathing life into forgotten characters from groundbreaking classics.
The Jigsaw Bride begins one hundred years after the conclusion of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece in a botanical laboratory in the heart of a decrepit, decaying Swiss castle. Here we find the monster’s “Jigsaw” bride, Justine (Heather Chrisler), brought back to life by the botanist, scientist, and would-be doctor, Maria von Moos (Courtney Abbott).
As she begins to piece together the remnants of her past, Justine digs up a series of moments from Shelley’s Frankenstein, and, with the help of the brilliant but fatally flawed Von Moos, starts down the path to discovering what and who she truly is.
Made in a fit of grief as a companion for the creation he abandoned, Justine bears the scars given by her maker, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Though remakes have focused on the brutality and ferocity of the “monster” incorrectly called Frankenstein (Frankenstein was the scientist, not the monster), Shelley’s original unnamed creation was a far more complex character. Like the original for whom she was made, Justine has a thirst for understanding and human connection. But fueled by the enhanced powers Dr. Frankenstein has perfected in his second attempt at regenerating life, she demonstrates a far greater capacity for health, strength, and intellect.
At first, it appears this will be a story about a forsaken soul nurtured by a brilliant scientist who would be a doctor were it possible for women in Switzerland in 1871. But soon it becomes clear that it’s actually Von Moos who needs Justine. Enter Janos Vystario (Jonathan Crabtree), purveyor of a “freak show,” exploiter of medical oddities, ringmaster of the circus of the macabre. And with this, the plot twists begin, the tension rises, and the true nature of a “monster” is revealed. As the play unfolds, Maria and Justine grapple with what it means to survive in a world that marginalizes and exploits women, even as they marginalize and exploit each other.
For all its Halloween fun, The Jigsaw Bride is no straight horror play. At heart, this regenerated take on The Bride of Frankenstein seeks to provide a more fully-formed portrait of the tragic character who has served as the crazed mate for the lumbering leading monster in the litany of dumbed-down remakes since Shelley’s genre-defining, brilliant, complex tale.
While it might help to have an affinity with Shelley’s original Frankenstein–and it would almost certainly enhance the enjoyment of the story–Zettelmaier’s script seamlessly fills in the key points of the backstory and works just fine as a stand-alone piece.
Like the original, there’s much more to this play than one might imagine. Both Shelley and Zettelmaier’s creatures are murderous and wrathful, but they’re also broken, brilliant, and–somehow–utterly sympathetic. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein cannot destroy his “monster,” so he is destroyed. Zettelmaier’s mad scientist cannot destroy the monster within her, so she too faces a strange kind of annihilation.
But, unlike Shelley’s tragic creation, Zettelmaier’s cunning monster has a name and is unencumbered by remorse.
Abbott is altogether believable in her role as the once bright and energetic, turned rapidly declining, Maria Von Moos.
Chrisler’s Justine is complicated, brilliant, and fierce. With the strength and depth of Chrisler’s performance, Justine begins in a state of confusion and thrashing frustration, then transforms from a blunt force object into a cunning and righteous force of nature, better versed in what it means to be human than her human counterparts.
Sipla’s Janos admirably supports Justine and Maria, even as he seeks to exploit both women, with no great success. Sipla is, by turns, funny, sentimental, and bumbling, in his role as a character playing a character, looking for his own sad brand of redemption.
Along with the fine performances, Angela Weber Miller’s set sets the spooky mood for the production with its inventive design and functionality. Massive darkened castle windows rise above the botanical laboratory in the first act, and a strangely scary caged wagon sets the tone for the interplay between Justine and Janos in the second.
Accompanying the spooky set design, Christopher Kriz’s original music and sound design gives the perfect spooky feel.
This is by no means a perfect play. In an effort to fill in the backstory, the first act suffers from moments of contrived dialogue that slow the action. But it’s no easy feat to write and produce a play that will invariably draw comparisons to a genre-defining masterpiece. With this being said…
The Jigsaw Bride is an ambitious and impressively frightening tale about the true nature of humanity and the monsters that lie within.
The Jigsaw Bride runs through November 14th at First Folio Theatre in OakBrook. Tickets are available at the website.