Role-swapping actors add novel twist to 'Frankenstein'


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Imagine reading "Frankenstein" back in the day, when Mary Shelley first wrote the scientist and his DIY Creature into literary legend. The year was 1817; Boris Karloff had not been born, no less bolted, and James Wale's 1931 film vision had not yet influenced the face of the Creature forevermore.

Writer Nick Dear and Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") decided it was worth revisiting the oft-revisited story onstage to give perspective and voice to Victor Frankenstein's Creature. This new "Frankenstein" is playing to SRO crowds at the National Theatre in London and in the U.S. via digital broadcasts to theaters like The Oaks in Oakmont, where it has two more showings tonight and Sunday.

The curiosity about this production is two gifted British actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creature every other night.

On Sunday, the Creature was embodied by Mr. Cumberbatch ("Masterpiece Mystery's" Sherlock Holmes update) in grotesque makeup, adding to a stunning physical performance that begins with his "birth" through an egg-shaped membrane. He enters the world as an abandoned newborn in the body of a man. All inhibitions are set aside as Mr. Cumberbatch teeters between spastic spurts and newfound grace. Thrust into the cruel world, the Creature stumbles on a learned blind man (Karl Johnson), who shows him rare human kindness and imparts the powers of speech and literacy.

The Creature soaks it all up until he is overtaken by other lessons: to lie and hate, to murder without conscience. When he finally confronts his creator/father, the Creature finds in Victor Frankenstein a man of unlimited hubris. Despite a horrific act committed by his creation/son, Victor is willing to shake hands on a devil's bargain: create a female companion for the lonely creature, and they will leave for South America, never to return.

Mr. Miller ("Eli Stone," "Dexter") is a mad scientist who sweats and frets about his compulsion to play God, yet he is swept away by ego. With empathy and compassion sorely lacking, he puts loved ones in harm's way to further serve his need to play God. The actor digs deep to bring his inner madman to the surface but can't quite match the polar-opposite sweetness of Naomie Harris as his fiancee, Elizabeth.

It would be easier to assess the performances if I had seen a screening in which the tables were turned, with Mr. Miller in the more physically demanding role of the creature and Mr. Cumberbatch in the role of Victor, who has some of the sociopathic tendencies he displays so well in "Sherlock." As a whole, the gothic shockfest was most effective and disturbing when Mr. Cumbertach was in the throes of learning the amoral ways of man and still yearning for love and life.

A supporting cast member on the Olivier stage every night is the massive, triangular chandelier that dazzles and dims and delivers blinding bursts of light, caught at various stages by the overhead camera. It looms above a stage fitted with grates that spit fire and tracks and a turntable. A train and furniture and piers and mountains come and go as befits specific scenes but without much relationship to each other -- perhaps like the body parts stitched together to create ... what? That's just one of the questions about humanity Mary Shelley posed back in 1817, and it's still a fresh notion today.

At the Oaks Theater in Oakmont 7 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday, starring Jonny Lee Miller as the creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor. Tickets: $20, $16 for students (recommended for 15 and older); showclix.com or 1-888-71-tickets.


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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