'Frankenstein': An Encore
Two years ago, the Sunrise Theater began presenting operas broadcast live in HD from the Metropolitan in New York.
This year, the Sunrise became the second theater in North Carolina to present a similar program, National Theatre (NTL), from London, England.
The series has included “Phedre,” “A Disappearing Number,” “Hamlet,” “FELA!,” “King Lear” and “Frankenstein,” with Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” scheduled for June 30 and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” arriving at a time yet to be announced.
These performances are carefully and expertly filmed as they unfold both before the actual evening’s 8 p.m. theater audience there, as well as at 3 p.m. EDT for those of us watching here in the Sandhills.
Recorded encore performances of the original event are possible with NTL’s permission, and the Sunrise is bringing “Frankenstein” back for not one but four encore performances.
But before we move on, let me tell you about my own experiences in learning about Frankenstein.
A Personal Tale
It was in 1948, at age 13, that I met Frankenstein.
Lefty Thompson and I had blind dates with two young ladies, one of whom became my high school sweetheart.
We were so unsure of their potential and so cheap that we arranged to meet them inside the theater so we wouldn’t have to pay for their tickets. (I think when we saw how good they looked we did spring for some popcorn.)
The movie at the Hill Theater that Saturday was “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” This film was the popular comedians’ first foray into the genre of the horror film. It worked for them and their audiences. They would go on to meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man and the Mummy.
I don’t remember the duo’s comedy but I do remember the Frankenstein part of the film. I learned that Frankenstein was a towering monster with a square head and electric bolts sticking out of his neck. He was made from a collection of body parts, sewn together by a mad scientist and electrified into life. He was scary, ugly, shunned, pursued, beaten and eventually killed because he became a menace to society.
It was only later that I learned Frankenstein was the mad doctor’s name, not the monster’s. In the movies, I never heard the monster speak. It made threatening sounds and used a sort of crude sign language but no words issued from its mouth as it lurched around the famous laboratory and town in which it was born.
Later in my life, I saw James Whales’ original “Frankenstein” (1931). Other than a 1910 Thomas Edison title, this premiered as the inaugural modern Frankenstein film. Many would follow.
Whale chose to make it a “horror film,” with just a whiff of science fiction. He based the movie on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s strange, dark novel, “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus,” which she wrote in the summer of 1816, when she was 18 years old.
Whale took the basic story line and some key scenes from young Mary Shelley’s work, but ignored the moral and philosophical questions she raised.
The central theme of her work, while often presented in subsequent movies and TV shows as horror, farce or science fiction, is about much more than a white-coated mad scientist and his hulking creation.
Her story, which raises serious questions about life and death, is almost 200 years old and springs from her life and spirit.
Death seemed to stalk Mary Shelley. Her difficult birth led to the death of her mother. From age 17 to 25, she endured five pregnancies. One ended in a miscarriage that almost killed her. She lost a premature baby girl at birth, and her son William died in 1819 at the age of 3.
That same year, her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, fell from his boat in a violent storm and drowned. Some critics feel, not unreasonably, that Mary Shelley had a particular feel for the suffering caused by the often irresponsible male ego. It probably did not hurt that her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was the author of the esteemed “Vindication of the Rights of Women,” published in 1792.
I was a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., when I stumbled onto the shocking difference between the films’ “Frankenstein” and Shelley’s.
I decided to read the book in an attempt to become more familiar with the dean of my college’s research efforts.
At first I thought I had gotten the wrong book. Within one cover Shelley’s tale was divided into three volumes. It began with a letter from an “R. Walton” to his sister, a “Mrs. Saville,” in England. Walton initially describes events that were taking place on a ship trapped in the ice flows of the Arctic sea.
How different from what I expected. Where was the spooky house, the strange laboratory, Igor the weird assistant, the townspeople with their flaming torches?
What subsequently unfolded before my puzzled and amazed eyes was the real story of Frankenstein and his Creation.
And that brings me to the Sunrise Theater’s encore performances of the NTL play “Frankenstein.”
The four performances will be your chance to catch what I consider one of the best pieces of theater I have ever seen.
It is indeed a stunning piece of theater, and it embodies the issues that Mary Shelley was attempting to explore in her Gothic novel.
For example, one of the two central characters of the drama is a “Creature,” not a “Monster.” And he definitely develops a voice, one that raises questions similar to those posed by the young author in her book:
What is the responsibility of the Creator (Parent) for the Creature (Child)?
How do we learn?
What responsibility do we have to look beyond the appearance of another?
How do we learn to judge what is good and what is evil?
Is revenge an appropriate response when violated?
Audience response to the play has been outstanding. One measure of that is the show is entirely sold out for the rest of its run.
The role of the Creature and Frankenstein are played by two talented and captivating actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. They alternate the roles night by night. That feat alone makes the play unique.
Critics have praised the play’s supporting elements: set design, lighting and music.
I knew, even as it ended to thunderous applause, in London and at the Sunrise, that I wanted to see this work again, if only to learn how the actors would relate when playing their reverse roles.
Both versions will be available at the Sunrise encores. I hope you will come and see this extraordinary work of art. It is suitable for young people 15 and above. They will find it quite fascinating. Others of more mature years will have their “movie acquired” understanding of the Frankenstein story corrected and deepened.
The encores will play Friday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. (Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature), Saturday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature), Sunday, April 24, at 2:30 p.m. (Cumberbatch as the Creature) and 7:30 p.m. (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature).
Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students and can be purchased at the door.
For advance ticketing or more information call (910) 692-8501 or visit www.sunrisetheater.org.
Pinehurst resident Ron Sutton is professor emeritus of film at American University, in Washington, D.C.
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