Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Frankenstein, One More Time

I am compelled, as they say in horror films, to write just one more post on the National Theatre's version of Frankenstein. I saw the switched-lead cast this afternoon, and I still am reeling.

Everything I wrote about the production starring Benedict Cumberbatch holds for this version. I came away with the same feeling of awe and pride in a theatre that would take itself this seriously on every level. The actors, technical effects, lighting and set design, all were virtually the same in the Jonny Lee Miller production, and the impact both had on me was equal.

The difference was, the second time, that I knew what would happen next. I looked forward to seeing Jonny Lee Miller when he confronts his maker, and watching that particular sparring match was equally thrilling both times. My mind was wrapped up in the arguments--who was the real monster here, the power-mad genius who created the creature, or the creature who has become a killing machine? Maybe because I'd seen it before, I picked up some things in the second viewing, or maybe they were in sharper relief in this production. But I came away clearly aware that the author was telling us that the scientist, who admits he doesn't know what love is like, has actually created a man with a soul more sensitive and self-aware than he is. He must kill the creature not, as he rationalizes, to save those who might be murdered, but because his experiment yielded a more complicated result than he was capable of dealing with. The two are symbiotic by the end, and exist in an existential dance of anger that will echo through the ages.

I suspect Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein was better in the role, illuminating that moment when the monster defines love for him, and maybe Jonny Lee Miller was a better monster as he was imminently watchable in his graceful evolution in the role.

That is to say, I found the Miller-monster version more to my liking, and I'm not 100% clear why. From this day forward I am a fan of both actors, and I have always been a fan of England's National Theatre. Having an institution as precious as this one is a triumph of many arts, and a treasure for a country that has known the true importance of fine theatre throughout its history.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Playing God

Two of the best: Benedict Cumberbatch.Jonny Lee Miller

Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley wrote an earth-shattering book in 1818, putting forth the concept of man’s ego and pursuit of science running away with him, causing him to think himself capable of the undreamed-of feat of cobbling together a living human being out of the scraps of dead ones. Frankenstein is sometimes called the first science fiction novel, and as such, it is a story of science gone wrong—and is fraught with the high drama of the exploits of the most terrifying monster imaginable, one created by man to prove his own worth.

The idea has fascinated us for two centuries now, and will likely do so for more to come. In England’s National Theatre production, presented on screen at the Rosendale Theatre yesterday, the two principle characters—Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he created—appear to be vying for the position of most despicable. They discuss philosophy (unlike  in the beloved 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, this monster can speak, and does so with erudition and eloquence), they spar and try to kill each other, as they debate morality and they both behave like sociopaths.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the monster. He begins life almost as an embryo, in an extraordinary, almost balletic slither across the floor, replete with contortions and spasms until he can stand upright. He is so grotesque we can hardly bear to look at him, and indeed almost everybody who does look at him tries immediately to kill him. He comes upon a remote cottage where a blind man lives and takes him in. This man gives him the education and compassion he needs for a year’s time, and also demonstrates to the monster, by happenstance, that no man is trustworthy or good.

Jonny Lee Miller is convincing as the mad genius who came up with the idea that, with all the tools of modern science, he not only could create a human being from scratch, but he should—for his own personal glory and, he thinks, for the advancement of mankind.

Cumberbatch and Miller are the best of the best, products of the English discipline of theatre. They are extremely intelligent but also extremely emotional, and in control of every gesture and emotion a human being can conjure. They are extraordinary and awe-inspiring to behold; one feels privileged to live in a generation that can see them at their best, alive and creating before our eyes. Both have done extensive television, but like most English actors, they are at their finest on the stage.

The National Theatre production demonstrates the full art of stage production, with fiery lighting, special effects, and an ensemble of first-rate actors to support the leading players. Both the stars are on an equal footing, and all the cast and special effects and technicians serve them by split-second timed changes and  commitment to the show. It is a phenomenon to see.

The second show of the evening was scheduled to be a unique twist—the leading roles switched with Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as his creator. I was emotionally exhausted at the end of the show and not sure I could have tolerated another, obviously equal, version of the same that evening, so I was not 100 per cent looking forward to seeing it again. I was a bit relieved when the announcement was made that the second version hadn’t arrived and the evening screening would be the one we had just seen. There will be another showing on Wednesday; if it is the one will Miller as the monster, I must go again (and will do so with relish), but the production was complete and satisfying as I did see it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cumberbatch and Miller: Together

The two young leading lights of the English theatre, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, will be vying for our attention this afternoon in Rosendale. In the RSC production of Frankenstein, directed by (Slumdog Millionaire) Danny Boyle, the two actors switch roles in the production and offer us a demonstration of the craft of acting, while scaring us silly at the same Halloween time.

In the 2 P.M. showing, the company features Miller as the Monster. I'm a fan of his from the CBS Sherlock Holmes series Elementary, and look forward to seeing the way he tackles the role that made Boris Karloff a household name. As Holmes, he is lithe, quick-minded, and a bit cold--but very different from the lumbering, lost Karloff. I can't wait to see what he does with the challenge of creating a very different creature.

Cumberbatch has also had a turn at Sherlock Holmes, playing in the slick BBC production of the updated mysteries as seen recently on PBS here. His Sherlock was aloof, superior, and, of course, mentally agile as his whole life seemed to be in his mind. He will play Dr. Frankenstein in the 2 P.M. show.

Then, for the 7:15 screening, the boys will each take the other's role and see what he can do with it. An entrancing fancy for anyone who loves the technical aspects of the theatre, and for anybody else, I would think either show would be engrossing--and both would be a knockout.

I'm going to both.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Silents Speak To Us

Yes, they're old, and being old, maybe sometimes out of date. Yes, they're in black and white. And yes, they transcend the medium and present us that rarest gift--pictures of ourselves, past, present, and, if the human race is fortunate, future.

I'm talking about silent movies. I am enamored of them, and particularly those of Buster Keaton, and particularly Steamboat Bill, Jr., which will shall see at the Rosendale Theatre on November 3 at 2 P.M. Keaton is acknowledged now as a genius director, actor, and comedian. His face in repose (and it was almost always in repose) telegraphs volumes. We empathize; we care about whatever character he is bringing us. So much more than a "deadpan comic," Keaton portrays courage, romance, perseverance, and the pursuit of happiness in the most serious way. 

His own courage is legendary. He came from vaudeville, knockabout pratfall comedy, and his physical grace is apparent in every stunt. In his time, movies were made quickly, actors did their own stunts--and they risked their lives for an effect time after time. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton repeats a sight gag he had created for a short called "One Week." in which he is standing facing the camera and the facade of a house falls on him. It's an impossible effect to describe, and only takes a moment of the movie, but it was so good in "One Week" that it simply had to be preserved and performed a second time, and it was in this movie. The reality is it was one of those times when Keaton could have been killed had his timing been off for a second or if he had been less fleet of foot in hitting his mark.  He actually broke his neck once performing a stunt in a movie, and he had many mishaps throughout his career. He is sheer heaven to watch in a race scene (my own favorite is in Seven Chances, as he is being chased by seven would-be brides and a half-ton boulder, down a steep hill and into a field), or jumping across buildings, or getting himself out of a jam with superhuman agility of body and mind. Though his face remains for the most part almost immobile, he transmits whole stories through those magnificent eyes. You can read his mind.

It is said that the Civil War story The General was his greatest film, and maybe it was, but to me the vitality and invention of his other work defies comparison. I think I've seen most of them, but it's been 40 years since I saw Steamboat Bill, Jr. I'm as excited as a kid to see it again. The Rosendale Sunday Silents series gives us a chance to experience silent cinema with live music, (provided by local favorite Marta Waterman), fresh popcorn, and a room full of friendly neighbors, young and old, waiting to be astonished. 

I hope you'll join us! If you see me, come talk to me about your reaction to this old gem. Beth Wilson, a professor in SUNY New Paltz's film department, will be on hand to answer questions afterward. With enough enthusiastic response, maybe Rosendale's Sunday Silents series will expand and expose more and more people to the special world of classic silent movies.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Kennedys and a Different World

It's the time of year when everybody's talking about it again. New books are released, new movies come out, television shows footage and pictures, and everybody wants to know: Did we ever learn the true story of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination? If not, will we?

CBS This Morning, interviewing the writer of a new book about the assassination, showed the statistic revealing that 85% of the American people view Kennedy as one of the greatest American presidents. In view of the unpopularity of Barack Obama in some circles and my admiration for this president, a man I see as an example of grace under tremendous pressure, I find this statistic heartening. I want to tell you what it was like where I was when JFK was killed.

I was living in Atlanta and had a baby just over a year old. We were living in a garage apartment behind a big house on Springdale Road, with our futures bright and our hopes high for having such a young, vital and attractive couple in the White House. My husband and I were that rare thing, Southern Liberals, and we endured the injustice of the Jim Crow mentality at every turn--and had all our young lives--but were not engaged politically in such a way as to try to do anything about it.

Atlanta was very segregated then, and the only hope was that there was a crusading newspaper under the leadership of the brilliant Ralph McGill and a bright businessman named Ivan Allen was mayor. Lurking in the background, and joke to the smart people in town, was a little troll named Lester Maddox, who ran a fried chicken restaurant and ran ads in the newspaper that were little more than racist rants. Maddox handed out free ax handles in the parking lot of his restaurant for his loyal customers to use to club any Negroes (and that wasn't the way he pronounced it) who might try to get into his restaurant.

My father-in-law was a doctor in Dothan, Alabama, and he passionately opposed the encroaching "socialized medicine" initiative that would be called the Medicare program--as did all loyal members of the American Medical Association. My husband got in constant discussions with his sister, who attended Auburn University at that time, on the subjects of Civil Rights protests (she didn't approve) and the Kennedy family (she disliked and feared them intensely). There was no reaching these people about JFK and Jackie, much less about what they saw as the dynasty he was building.

The atmosphere in the South was similar to what it is now: Hatred and fear of the president and his programs. We have suffered so much upheaval and agony since the Kennedy years that those halcyon days seem almost pleasant now, but they weren't. The stress I endure every day now was fresh then, anticipating as it did events and personalities that would be much worse than we could have imagined. There are many things Kennedy did wrong in his short tenure as POTUS, but he was not allowed to become what he might have had he been allowed a longer life. The very things for which he was despised in his time he is now admired for. I take a little solace in that, because I've seen it happen before. A man doing his absolute best every minute he is at the helm, vilified and misrepresented, fifty years later being considered a hero to 85% of the people he governs.

Hope and change? Barack Obama has not been able to effect the change he promised. But he instilled enough hope in me that I can say in 50 years or possibly sooner, the world will know and respect his inordinate ability to do what he can under the most adverse of circumstances. At least, just perhaps 85% will.