Joseph Zettelmaier Credit: Courtesy the artist

Playwright Joseph Zettelmaier is a maker of monsters, a horror artist who retells classic tales with an emphasis on what makes these constructs human.

First Folio Theatre, which has produced five of Zettelmaier’s plays in the past (including horror tales The Man-Beast, The Gravedigger, and Dr. Seward’s Dracula, along with two non-horror pieces, Salvage and All Childish Things), unveils the latest of his monster shows with the world premiere of The Jigsaw Bride: A Frankenstein Story, opening October 16.

Directed by Hayley Rice, the show takes place a century after the death of Victor Frankenstein when scientist Maria von Moos decides to excavate a castle and discovers a slumbering, patched-up woman. Featuring actors Heather Chrisler, Courtney Abbott, and Peter Sipla, the play brings together monster, scientist, and the owner of a traveling menagerie, a two-hour deep look into what it means to be human.

I caught up with Zettelmaier, who is opening two new plays this month along with performing his duties as a teacher and artistic director of Penny Seats Theatre Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He shares why he loves the classic horror genre and what he searches for when writing about monsters.

Bridgette Redman: You’ve created a brand for yourself with classic horror and monster stories. What inspired you to explore those types of stories?

Joseph Zettelmaier: I’ve always been a fan of the classic horror stories and monsters, not Freddy or Jason, but the originals, Frankenstein and Dracula and the like. I grew up with the movies as a kid. My father showed them to me and I just loved them.

As a teenager, I started reading the books and the thing that really resonated with me about all these Victorian gothic novels was that they are really not about the monsters. They’re about the people surrounding the monsters. They are fundamentally really human stories. I became fascinated by the idea of exploring the human condition, the thoughts and dreams and fears through the lens of horror.

What is it that resonates with you with these kinds of stories?

You look at something like Frankenstein. The monster in the story, even at his worst, is an incredibly sympathetic character. It’s hard not to identify and sympathize with what he’s going through. Certainly not all, but a lot of these stories, the motivations behind what the monsters do is very human and very understandable. There is a lot to be mined from it rather than just doing a straight-up adaptation. How can we expand the stories?

What sort of hooks do you look for when you’re reimagining a classic story?

First and foremost, the human element, especially through the lens of what are we dealing with as a society right now? How can that be reflected in these stories? There are certain gothic tropes that I’m always a fan of—literally one of the things in The Jigsaw Bride that I just couldn’t resist putting in is a Victorian traveling circus. It’s one of those quintessentially wonderful gothic things that I just hadn’t put in any of my plays yet. As much as I’m trying to reflect the human condition and where we are now, I’m also trying to explore the world of the Victorian era.

How did The Jigsaw Bride come about? 

It’s the spiritual sequel to The Gravedigger. I have my own little personal mission to write a play to capture each and every one of the classic black-and-white monsters. I’m working on one right now. I can’t say what it is, but it is a one-person show. The monster is the only character. There are still a few I hadn’t done, the bride of Frankenstein being one of them. In The Gravedigger, there is the idea of what would happen if this man-made creature, this monster, was taken in by the right person. These stories are about nature vs. nurture. And The Jigsaw Bride is what happens when they are taken in by the wrong person and the lessons that each of them learns about humanity from whom they are taught by.

The Jigsaw Bride
Through 11/14: Wed 8 PM, Thu 3 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Thu 10/14, 8 PM, Sat 10/16, 8 PM only; First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 31st St., Oak Brook, 630-986-8067, firstfolio.org, previews through 10/15, $29, regular run 10/16-11/14, $49-$59 (seniors $44-$54, students $20).

What do you think will most surprise people about The Jigsaw Bride?

If they are expecting a mute, confused, or violent monstrous bride of Frankenstein, they will be surprised. She is not that. There are three main characters. One is one of the foremost female scientists of the Victorian era.

Why did you want to open at First Folio? How does it work for that space and audience?

I’ve been with them for years. They’ve opened many of my horror shows and even commissioned one. I absolutely adore working there. I love the people. They made me an associate artist the very first play I worked on. I’ve been so welcomed there. They treat me with the utmost respect and dignity, and that matters. As for the location, the theater is literally inside a giant gothic mansion. The theater is inside this giant mansion on a nature preserve; you just could not ask for a better environment. 

When researching The Jigsaw Bride, what did you learn that most delighted you?

There were two things. I was really fascinated by the female scientist, Maria Von Moos, who was the first woman inducted into one of the greatest scientific societies in Europe. She was a groundbreaking scientist. 

The other thing is that in the Victorian era, the traditional circus or sideshow was changing. What had become inordinately popular, was that instead of doing strong men and sword swallowers, the circuses transitioned into exhibitions of medical curiosities. As science was advancing, the show people decided we can still make a show out of it. As we’re learning more about sciences and more about biology and more about medicine, there is still something to be mined out of that for entertainment value.

What sort of responses have you had to your horror and monster stories? What most encourages you to keep at them?

People always seem shocked when they find out I have plays that aren’t horror plays. It’s not that they don’t get done, but they don’t get done as often as my horror plays. They are by far and away my bread and butter and I’m fine with that. Obviously, I’m a big fan. They’ve brought me a lot of good. I met the love of my life because she runs a horror theater in Florida. They decided to do The Gravedigger and then they turned The Gravedigger into a movie. That’s yielded untold dividends. There are some people who hate the idea of being pigeonholed. I’m really quite flattered that people tend to think of me in that way. As long as I’m upright and breathing, I hope to keep writing these plays.

What do you want people to know about The Jigsaw Bride that no one has asked yet?

I wrote this play in seven days, the shortest I’ve ever written a play, and it was picked up for production three days after that. It moved very quickly. It’s a piece I’m very proud of. One thing that really resonated with me when we did the first reading at First Folio, I hope [audiences] find it is creepy and gothic and spooky and it is not without a sense of humor. It may be a little bit of a grim sense of humor, but there is a sense of humor to it.

The primary theme of The Jigsaw Bride is: discount women at your own peril. That way does not necessarily go the way we think it will.