Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Whole New Monster

Hey all! In the midst of moving I've asked my friend Tom McGee to pitch hit (that's a thing, right?) for me. Here's his take on Danny Boyle's theatre production of Frankenstein which was broadcast live in North America. Enjoy!

Frankenstein directed by the 28 Days Later guy, starring the bad guy from the latest season of Dexter (and Dracula 2000!), and BBC’s Sherlock Holmes trading roles every night?  Sounds like a winning combo.  Like Frankenstein’s experiment, Boyle’s production of Frankenstein being broadcast from the National Theatre works, but it isn’t exactly successful.  An interesting mess, like the monster itself.
A couple weeks after seeing it, I still don’t know how I feel about the show; there is some incredible stuff going on in it –the portrayal of the Monster is the best I’ve ever seen and truly heart-wrenching and the scene between Frankenstein, The Monster, and the Monster’s Bride is extremely powerful- but the play is fairly choppy, and the human characters are boring and unsympathetic.  You’re actually glad when the Monster starts knocking them off.  Ultimately, it’s worth seeing as the portrayal of the Monster will, in all likelihood, alter how you think of the character forever; just don’t expect the play surrounding it to be great.

The basic premise of the piece is to give the Monster a voice, which is accomplished spectacularly: the Monster is the perfect counterpoint to the iconic, lumbering Karloff creature that has long since eclipsed Shelley’s capital R Romantic storyteller.  As part of a generation of horror fans who only ascribe the line “Putting on the Ritz” to the creature, it was confusing and frustrating encountering Shelley’s for the first time; but this Monster finds a surprisingly touching mid-ground.  The actors studied The actors studied stroke and accident victims in rehab, learning to regain the ability to move and apply it to devastating effect.  The Monster’s struggle and gradual success in both movement and speech will invariably remind you of someone you know or have seen and it changes the Monster from a patchwork resurrected corpse into a person battling a handicap.  It’s crazy how different this approach makes the Monster.  By watching his step-by-step development we watch the victim become the murderer, rather than the other way round and it takes sexual violence to make the creature as evil as the people abusing it (done rather shockingly in the Monster’s revenge scene against Frankenstein’s wife).  It’s a fantastic take on the character and one that I found made me completely rethink the story.
This new take ultimately reminded me that Shelley beat modern zombie writers to the punch by a long shot: the new trend across horror seems to be to romanticise and humanize monsters, such as Twilight’s castration of vampire and werewolves, to the romantic zombie genre, where the inner thoughts, feelings, and conflicts of the zombie psyche are explored.  I remember first stumbling across this in Breathers, a book about sentient zombies, thinking it quite novel.  But really, the resurrected corpse learning to become a monster has been around for a really long time, but it took this uneven film/play to remind me how beautifully it had been done waaaaaaay back in the day.

So what’s the problem?

Humans.  Bloody boring humans.  Frankenstein himself has a grand entrance run-by cameo in the first scene where he appears, randomly yells at the Monster and then runs away.  His voice was strained and kind of painful to listen to.  I was really excited to see Miller play the Doctor, but I suspect he put all his work into the Monster, as he seemed to be constantly hiding twitchy hand gestures and limped occasionally like the Monster was.  Not exactly riveting (with the exception of the scene with the Bride of the Monster, which was perfectly executed).  The Doctor is a big part of the second act and kills the momentum established in the first (there’s no intermission, but the perspective shifts after the Monster kills Frankenstein’s kid brother.)  The support cast fares no better, aside from a fantastic maid and Cato from HBO’s ROME as the Blind Man who teaches the Monster to speak.  Frankenstein’s father is particularly terrible, declaring that his son is dead with all the concern of one who has grabbed take-out and realizes they forgot the cutlery.  I was pretty happy when the creature showed up and started killing them.  And the play ultimately limps off stage, after a final great moment with the Monster and Frankenstein, cheapened by a walk-off into the light. 
It’s almost like watching two shows: a brilliant one about the Monster and a generic, flat one about a reclusive jerk and his annoying family.  It’s the opposite of other recent productions, such as Catalyst Theatre’s haunting production which dies when the dull Monster shows up and bitches about life for half an hour straight, but that sadly doesn’t make it better...only different.
But nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to hate the show.   Benedict Cumberbatch’s Monster is entirely worth the price of admission, and has completely re-shaped my idea of an iconic horror character, which is a rare and awesome thing.  I can only assume Johnny Lee Miller’s Monster is also great, although I have a suspicion that Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein will probably be just as good; he’s a brilliant and surprising actor and worth seeing.  It’s frustrating, uneven, and kind of unsatisfying, but still somehow worth it.  If you have any interest in the character, be it Karloff’s or –God help us, Van Helsing’s- you must see this show.
It also answers the burning question of what happened to James Franco’s arm after 127 Hours.  Frankenstein was the original recycler.

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