Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Creature of Beauty in National Theatre's Frankenstein

Last Thursday night I saw National Theatre Live's Frankenstein, and my view of theatre, physicality of performance, and even Benedict Cumberbatch is forever changed.

In July 1977, Dayton's Kenley Players featured Peter Strauss (then best known for Rich Man, Poor Man) in Heaven Can Wait. The play was entertaining but unremarkable, yet one moment in the actor's performance was branded in my memory: Strauss' character dies, his spirit suddenly flown from his body. That shell then collapses on stage in a perfect moment of the actor's physical control. The character was alive, and then suddenly he was gone, disappeared, fled, leaving only a corpse. Sounds like a simple fall down, doesn't it? But Strauss controlled the emotion and the movement--I could see Death. In that one moment I learned the nature of acting and the importance of inhabiting a role.

Picture that moment extended for nearly two hours on stage. In March 2011, Daytona's RC Theatres broadcast the National Theatre's Frankenstein featuring Benedict Cumberbatch (currently best known for Sherlock). From the first moment that the Creature stretches long fingers against the translucent "womb" in which he is encased, he is real, alive. He flails, post-birth, across the stage. He slides and grasps, rolls and stumbles. I became fascinated with the Creature's calves and feet, kicking out to discover how to move, balancing his finally-standing body as it leans inexorably forward, restlessly twitching as he awaits the creation of his bride.

This Creature is impossibly graceful, his every motion meaningful. His tongue darts to capture a snowflake; his eyes follow a larger crystal's descent to the ground. Fingers splayed toward the sky, his fingertips paint words in the air more eloquently than his vocalized love of Milton. The Creature swirls, leaps, and springs. He slides down a beam to confront his creator, then escapes the scene by quickly climbing a darkened set.

Many actors would be hampered by the tortuous makeup of sutures and scars and a twisted mouth to produce halting speech. Not so with Cumberbatch. The Creature's story is choreographed through perfect movement; the actor's intensity with grace infuses every motion--or hesitation--with emotion. In this performance, actions truly speak louder than words.

Nevertheless, the Creature still has a way with words, his longing and intelligence as clearly voiced as his rage and impotence in a world blessing only nobility and beauty. The high-pitched cries of birds are as much part of the Creature's vocabulary as his mimicry of man. Yet the performance is never self-conscious or over the top. There is no actor, no celebrity, no shadows of characters past.

There is only the Creature, and he is magnificent.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The "Sherlock" Syndrome

Ah, it's spring in Florida. Time for a young (at heart) writer's fancy to turn to . . . pop culture events through autumn? upcoming conventions--including the Big One, San Diego Comic-Con? the constant stream of tweets and posts announcing casting news and set updates?

I remember when spring was a time to start relishing the promise of summer and, despite my love of teaching, the prospect of nearly three months off. But those days are as long gone as my carefree holidays spent seeing the USA in our Chevrolet. Now summer is a strategically planned schedule of locations to book, journal articles to read, people to interview, and thousands of words to write.

Don't get me wrong--writing is my life, even if, to date, it hasn't quite provided me the livelihood I would like. It's my lifeblood, at any rate. It also provides me opportunities to travel so that I can write about the subjects I love, and that travel allows me to make connections for more stories that will allow me to travel to a convention or take a tour, which provides me new inspiration and opportunities to write, . . . .

In preparation for this summer's long-anticipated marathon of travel and productivity, I have increasingly adopted the mannerisms of one of my favorite "adapted" characters: Sherlock. I look nothing like him, and I am hardly a scientist of deduction. I don't even have someone to blog for me. However, I've become increasingly focused and driven as I conduct my research, let my current interests morph into obsessions, and forego sleep and sociability as I pore over new information. (Unfortunately, I tend to be more Mycroftian in my approach to dinner.) Like Sherlock, I don't make a lot of money following my obsession, but I have to do what I love, even if it makes no sense to anyone else. Like Sherlock, I kick up my heels in glee, but in my case it's not a gruesome murder that brings overwhelming joy but a request for a review or an offer to write a chapter.

The other day a friend chided me for living inside my head, and I happily agreed, adding the offhand comment that everything else is transport. Sigh. Steven Moffat had already directed me down the road to my ruin, but really, Mark Gatiss, did you have to send a black car to speed me on my way?

During a weekend at home, it's become common for me to fall asleep over my keyboard as I seek out one more article or feel compelled to outline just one more essay. When I sprawl dramatically on the couch for a think or wander around stacks of documents and artefacts on my way through the living room, I channel Sherlock. When I knot my favorite silver-blue scarf around my neck before dashing off to work, I blush at my new fashion. When I choose to write instead of hoovering or deigning to shop, I blame Sherlock's single-mindedness and give myself permission to be equally self-centered. I wouldn't be surprised if, next to the lone Diet Pepsi and leftover Thai, something strange hasn't started growing into its own refrigerated experiment.

Not all teacher-writers look forward to spring break as a time to live in a dressing gown, mentally plan that trip to London or outline the next chapter while melted into the sofa, or lose hours upon hours in front of a laptop. I can hardly wait. And if Sherlock has ruined me for normal social interaction, I also have to thank him for my productivity and greater social acceptance of my eccentricity--because my friends are Sherlock fans, too. They may not want him (or me) as a flatmate, but they support my single-minded focus and occasionally drag me out into the real world.

Now if only I could find a John Watson to pick up milk on the way home.