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*He is not a secret agent. Not at all.



The biggest problem I have with live theatre is that when I want to go see something I want to go see, usually, I can't. Sometimes, it's just not playing anywhere. I had a need for some Farnsworth Invention last week, but my only option was to simply sit down and read it. (which I did, mentally casting Fran Kranz of TV's Dollhouse as Philo and Alec Baldwin as Sarnoff - it kicked ass).

Worse is when it is playing, but it's on Broadway and I'm not exactly made of plane tickets. Worse still, it's playing on the West End.

Right now, that's Nick Dear's adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel (and at this point, global fable) Frankenstein as directed by Danny Boyle. Now I think of two Boyles when I think of Frankenstein.

Fortunately, the National Theatre has embarked upon a delightful and ambitious program where they broadcast their plays, on a particular date or dates, to cinemas around the world. And yesterday, March 17 (while wearing no green at all because as a Sullivan, there is a green exemption for actually being blood Irish), London's West End came to the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. I saw Frankenstein!!!

Paling in comparison to actually being there, it was still delightful.

This production is not only notable for Boyle's direction, but for its sound design by Underworld (which doesn't mean it's got a dance soundtrack, they actually eschewed some of their own style in favor of matching the slightly steampunky visuals) and for its actor Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller who alternate the roles of creator and created with every performance.

The opening scene of the play is more a modern dance performance than anything. And to say that I was entranced is really say something, as I don't care for dance as an art form on the whole and modern dance doubly so. It is, essentially, the learning process of a newborn to toddler compacted into about ten minutes as the creature emerges from an artificial womb with an absolute lack of motor control and no awareness of his appendages and forges his path upright locomotion. His childlike wonderment is cut short when, after being cast out into the world, he learns of the fear and violence of humanity.

In this performance, Cumberbatch portrayed the monster while Miller was Victor, his creator. I was more interested in seeing this configuration because my only significant exposure to Cumberbatch has been in Steven Moffat's ridiculously superb Sherlock in the role of Holmes himself. It seemed reasonable that in going from one genius with an extremely high opinion of himself to another, the differences wouldn't necessarily be that strong and I wanted to see a real stretch from the actor. I was not disappointed.

His physicality was at the forefront of his performance as his creature never fully gains a human's elegant mastery of his body even while he does have the ability to use it gymnastically, surreptitiously and, most importantly brutally.

And, though rapid, he brings a reality to the creature's advancement from baying infant to educated philosopher and even to architect of destruction.

Miller's performance as Victor has less to recommend it, but it was still a fully realized character. His rendition of the mad doctor doesn't drastically vary from the more serious interpretations of the role.

Part of the drawback to the...part is that it's not equally featured. The play is essentially from the viewpoint of the monster, not a perfect POV and there are stretches in that stating that conceit, but let's just go with it anyway. I wouldn't call it Victor underwritten, though. What is there informs us fully about who he is (though, honestly, there isn't that much to him - he's a singularly driven personality and his complexities are few because only one thing matters to him).

And this leads us to Nick Dear's script.

Dear's dialogue stays in the classic sense of European dialogue of two-hundred years ago. Formal, erudite and probably a little unrealistic, however that's not to say unenjoyable. It is at times poetic and flowing, but occasionally a little clunky. My biggest complaint is that the verbal sparring between Victor and his creation was a bit on the repetitive side, and not in a musical way. The formality also would give way, from time to time, to a sense of humor that I think is more rooted in modern speech and its cadences, especially when the humor was based in an abrupt bluntness.

It is not, I think, a script that stands in greatness on its own. It depends very much on it's actors and production for life. Would I see Nick Dear's Frankenstein produced in Chicago, or here in L.A. or in a high school, even? It would depend on many factors. Whereas, I'd check out certain other plays regardless of the details of production. (Though an all-Hungarian midget production of Glengarry Glen Ross, probably not).

The technical aspects of the production were not just spot on, but occasionally astounding. And in one or two cases, maybe a little too astounding as I started drifting on how certain practical effects were achieved and had to fight my way back to the play itself. A multi-functional backlit backdrop served for most of the play's locations while a collapsible, bisected, elevator-capable turntable served not only to move other sets into position, but also for thematic effect (such as when Victor drifts from the creature on the Arctic ice.

There was actual rain and grass and a bizarre effect of depth underneath the floor-laid planks that served as a lakeside dock. And the simple interior of the Frankenstein manse set set slightly askew, like Marshall and Lily's crooked floor.

All of this took place under a cascade of hundreds of bare light bulbs that frequently served as lightning flashes or for rolling lighting effects.

I want to see it again. I want to see the actors reversed. I want to see what I'm sure is a completely different take on the creature and there were a few moments where I wondered what Cumberbatch's choices might have been in the performance of Victor.

If you ever get the chance (and I think there are further broadcasts), I can heartily recommend this take on the gods-and-monsters classic.
©2024 Michael Patrick Sullivan
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