Gothic horror tale 'Frankenstein' inspires provocative premiere of 'The Jigsaw Bride' at First Folio

  • Heather Chrisler plays the mysterious Justine and Peter Sipla plays mercenary traveling circus owner Janos Vystario in First Folio Theatre's premiere of "The Jigsaw Bride," a gothic drama by Joseph Zettelmaier.

    Heather Chrisler plays the mysterious Justine and Peter Sipla plays mercenary traveling circus owner Janos Vystario in First Folio Theatre's premiere of "The Jigsaw Bride," a gothic drama by Joseph Zettelmaier. Courtesy of Tom McGrath

 
 
Updated 10/21/2021 7:49 AM

"The Jigsaw Bride" -- ★ ★ ★

For "The Jigsaw Bride," Joseph Zettelmaier's new play premiering at First Folio Theatre, the playwright once again turned to Mary Shelley for inspiration.

 

Specifically, he turned to "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus," Shelley's 1818, genre-defining classic. The same novel inspired Zettelmaier's "The Gravedigger," which the Oak Brook theater premiered in 2014.

Like its predecessor, "The Jigsaw Bride," which centers on a minor character from Shelley's novel, is an intellectually rigorous tale, well-suited to the Halloween season. Unlike "The Gravedigger," which addressed guilt and penance, compassion and redemption, "The Jigsaw Bride" examines identity and evolution, obligation and absolution, science and nature.

Courtney Abbott, left, Heather Chrisler and Peter Sipla star in First Folio Theatre's premiere of Joseph Zettelmaier's "The Jigsaw Bride," directed by Hayley Rice.
Courtney Abbott, left, Heather Chrisler and Peter Sipla star in First Folio Theatre's premiere of Joseph Zettelmaier's "The Jigsaw Bride," directed by Hayley Rice. - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

That's a lot of ideas to pack into one drama, and "The Jigsaw Bride" gets a bit talky as a result. But there's much to recommend director Hayley Rice's intensely well-acted, unfussy production, beginning with Angela Weber Miller's striking set. Much of the action unfolds in a library dominated by piles of books, leafy green plants and soaring windows. Angled for dramatic effect, the windows seem to suggest a skewed perception held during 1881 (when the play is set) that women were less able than men and used that as a way to oppress them and deny them opportunities.

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The library is located in a Swiss castle belonging to the family of Maria von Moos (Courtney Abbott), based on the real-life Swiss scholar and botanist. While exploring the ruins of a nearby estate, Maria -- a doctor in all but title, which her gender denies her -- discovers the bedraggled, disoriented Justine (Heather Chrisler). In addition to the unexplained surgical incisions all over her body, Justine suffers from memory loss. She also believes it is 1779, meaning she has spent a century in hibernation.

Count Angela Weber Miller's impressive set among the reasons to see "The Jigsaw Bride," running through Nov. 14 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.
Count Angela Weber Miller's impressive set among the reasons to see "The Jigsaw Bride," running through Nov. 14 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

Possessed of a keen mind, an eidetic memory, superhuman strength and an almost feral ferocity, Justine becomes for Maria both a fascinating subject for study and an ideal pupil. As her memory returns, the young woman reveals she worked as a servant on an estate Shelley readers will recognize as belonging to Victor Frankenstein's family. She also recalls she was created to be a bride, another detail "Frankenstein" readers will recognize.

Both women understand what it means to be brushed aside, to be assigned a role based solely on one's gender, and, in Justine's case, inferior social status. As Justine observes, "being born is when the injustice of the world starts."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

United by their shared experience, they differ when it comes to the science vs. nature debate, with Maria extolling the benefits of scientific inquiry while Justine cautions against defying nature.

Maria von Moos (Courtney Abbott), left, coaxes what information she can from Justine (Heather Chrisler), a mysterious woman she encountered in Joseph Zettelmaier's "Frankenstein"-inspired "The Jigsaw Bride" at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.
Maria von Moos (Courtney Abbott), left, coaxes what information she can from Justine (Heather Chrisler), a mysterious woman she encountered in Joseph Zettelmaier's "Frankenstein"-inspired "The Jigsaw Bride" at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

Their scholarly pursuits and philosophical discourse are interrupted by the arrival of Maria's longtime friend Janos (Peter Sipla), the proprietor of a traveling circus, described as a "menagerie of the macabre," known during the 19th century as a "freak show." His appearance leads to betrayal, the revelation of which would spoil the play.

Suffice to say, "The Jigsaw Bride" poses provocative questions about freedom, the nature of forgiveness, the subjugation of women, identity, and what it means to be human.

The impassioned performances by Abbott, Sipla and especially Chrisler invigorate the philosophical debates that make up Zettelmaier's heady, chilling and decisively feminist tale.

"I am inferior to no one," warns Justine. "You forget that at your peril."

Believe her.

• • •

Location: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, firstfolio.org

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 3 p.m. Thursday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 15

Running time: About two hours, including intermission

Tickets: $49-$59

Parking: Free parking in adjacent lot

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the performance's start. Masks required at all times, regardless of vaccination status

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