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.

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