Woman on left consulting notebook while woman on right stands behind a man in a chair, holding him in a headlock.
The Jigsaw Bride with First Folio Theatre Credit: Tom McGrath

Playwright Joseph Zettelmaier has a history of taking largely forgotten, sometimes nameless characters and putting them in the dead center of the iconic tales they support. It’s a potentially grim business, digging up backstories (and futures) for (no)bodies the world only knows as incidental to someone else’s story.

But anyone passingly familiar with the commercial/critical success of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—wherein Tom Stoppard explores the lives of a pair of barely-there supporting characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet—understands the riches that can be unearthed applying this formula to the genre of iconic monsters. 

When Zettelmaier premiered The Gravedigger in 2014 at Oak Brook’s First Folio Theatre, audiences saw the story of Mary Shelley’s iconic novel Frankenstein focused not on the wealthy doctor who created the creature but on an impoverished menial living in squalor and forced to take up a profane side hustle in order to keep from starving.

In 2016’s Dr. Seward’s Dracula, Zettelmaier took up the case of the deeply traumatized titular doctor who watched all his friends murdered in Bram Stoker’s novel of the fanged fiend. It’s a thriller that also provides a brutal illustration of how trauma can manifest both physically and mentally.

The Michigan-based playwright returns to form with style and substance in The Jigsaw Bride, running through November 14 at First Folio. 

The Jigsaw Bride: A Frankenstein Story
Through 11/14: Wed 8 PM, Thu 3 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Wed 10/27, noon, First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 31st St., Oak Brook, 630-986-8067, firstfolio.org, $49-$59 (seniors $44-$54, students $20).

Like The Gravedigger and Dr. Seward’s Dracula, Zettelmaier presumes his audience has a basic command of the original stories he references. The bar is pretty low: If you know that Frankenstein is about a creature created from used body parts, you’re good. And even if you don’t, director Hayley Rice’s informative but never pandering staging makes the whole thing accessible.

Much of the drama is set in the laboratory of one Maria von Moos (Courtney Abbott), a formidable woman with all the credentials and education of a doctor save one: She’s a woman in 1871, which means she is not allowed to be a doctor. Von Moos lives alone in an abandoned Swiss castle, studying with the same obsessive fervor that defined Dr. Frankenstein, whose work she reveres.

Tellingly, von Moos’s only friend is the owner of a traveling “freak show,” who is always on the lookout for new specimens to add to his caravan. But not even Janos Vystario (Peter Sipla), a man who has no career-complicating moral qualms when it comes to buying and selling human beings—is prepared for Justine (Heather Chrisler) when she shows up in von Moos’s castle.

Mild spoiler alert: Justine’s identity is revealed early, and is pretty easy to figure out even earlier. Details about her character, including who she is, follow. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know.

Justine enters von Moos’s lab in a tattered white dress, with absolutely no memory of her life beyond vague images and sounds she can’t quite place. She also has seamed scars as thick as lines drawn by magic markers at every joint. Between the dress, the scars, and the lack of memory, it’s pretty obvious that Justine is, of course, the Bride of Frankenstein, or rather, the creature built for no other reason than to provide Dr. Frankenstein’s creature with a companion for life.

The would-be bride never even makes it off the slab in Shelley’s novel. In the ensuing centuries since Frankenstein was published, the Bride of Frankenstein has become a reference that mostly lives as pure camp, frizzled-lightning-bolt updo backlit for maximum effect.

But it’s not “who” that propels Zettelmaier’s plot through several hairpin twists. Through the first half, Justine and von Moos banter, Justine at a distinct disadvantage because she initially knows nothing of the time (1871) and place (Salenegg Castle, Switzerland) or the world where she finds herself.

Justine has some pointed questions for the man who made her from spare parts, or anyone who can explain how she’s supposed to exist in a world she was expressly built to be excluded from. Her plight is not entirely unlike that of von Moos: Both are women. Neither has a husband or children, making both extreme outliers well beyond the narrow field of acceptable roles women are allowed to play, at a time when being a female outlier could be lethal.

Von Moos was robbed of her chance to be a doctor by the same systemic misogyny that makes Justine fundamentally unsafe. As the two overcome their mutual suspicion and bond over hardships, you’ll think you know where things are headed. You do not. Von Moos is far more ruthless than she initially appears. Justine catches up quickly, her quest for knowledge quickly ceding to a ferocious desire to survive—and thrive—in a hostile world.

The scenes between Janos and Justine lack the firepower of those between Justine and von Moos, in part because Janos isn’t nearly as smart as von Moos or, for that matter, as smart as he thinks he is. He and Justine are never on an equal playing field, which Justine figures out early and uses to her advantage. It’s like watching a python toy with a peacock. 

Chrisler gives Justine a cagey intellect and an increasingly hot-burning rage as she learns just how capricious and cruel the world is to women. Justine’s journey from overwhelmed curiosity to savvy survivor is compelling, as is her ability to dispatch her foes with violent efficiency.

Abbott is wholly believable as a scientist in everything but official title and a woman who is completely capable of living well beyond the norms of society, secluded in a decrepit palace, her interactions with the specimens she studies far more frequent than those with actual human beings. 

Sipla’s Janos has the booming voice and over-the-top charm of a snake-oil salesman. He’s like the Wizard of Oz’s far less ingenious younger brother; you can see the cracks in his showmanship even before we see what’s behind the curtains of his traveling freak show.

Angela Weber Miller’s set design is one of the best in First Folio’s nearly quarter-century history. The botanical laboratory of Salenegg Castle is defined by massive cathedral windows that soar like giant canine incisors over a laboratory that’s both burgeoning with plant life and embedded with a sense of musty decay. Samantha Kaufman’s violence design looks creepily authentic and Christopher Kriz’s original music and sound design amplify the creepiness factor. 

Zettelmaier hasn’t invented anything new conceptually—go read Emma Donoghue’s “Kissing the Witch” for a brilliant example of how the genre adapts to short-story format. That’s an aside, not a criticism. The Jigsaw Bride: A Frankenstein Story is at once eerie and clever.