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Frankenstein (2011) October 25th, 2022

Famous for playing Sherlock Holmes in different shows at the same time, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller took that novelty to the next level in their stage production of Frankenstein. The two actors swap the Victor Frankenstein and Creature roles on alternating nights ensuring the audience won’t know who’s playing whom until arriving at the theater (unless they googled it I guess). It doesn’t take a contemporary man smart enough to steal fire from the gods to know he could capture lighting in a bottle by filming one of these performances. Thankfully Danny Boyle did exactly that before an eagle ate his liver.

Above the stage hang hundreds of lightbulbs and light fixtures flickering and flashing in waves. The stage below rotates with an enormous built-in turntable designed to help swap sets and enhance performances with its extra dimension of motion. The next thing you notice is the giant scrotum stretch taut inside a round Stargate structure. Inside the supple scrotum skin waits Benedict Cumberbatch. Not Smaug, Alan Turing, even the great Doctor Strange could compare to his greatest role as the monster inside a ballsack the size of a children’s-trampoline on its side. The film/play begins with Cumberbatch tearing at the scrotum’s skin from within until he claws through and falls to the floor, sticky and glistening with his own life force. Cumberbatch writhes around the stage for the next ten minutes while acting out an interpretive dance routine depicting an adult newborn human learning to walk. This visually stunning ten-minute sequence is the most unique and memorable part of the film. I can’t say I’ve ever seen another scene like it… well… except for that scene with the rhinoceros in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

The rest of the performance is a faithful rendition of the Frankenstein story as depicted in the novel, not the Universal Monster franchise. If you read the book you won’t need me to explain how true this film is to the important story point. Read the world’s first Sci-Fi novel written by a teenage girl on a dare and save me the time it would take to rehash the novel scene by scene.

Where Cumberbatch’s memorably lurchy performance is a triumph, Jonny Lee Miller’s stands out for the wrong reasons. All those lights, the wig and wool costumes boil our poor actor. He leaks buckets of sweat from everywhere and soaks the set. I’m sure his performance is magical but it is impossible to ignore a man dehydrating like astronaut food live on stage. That’s not even the grossest part…

There’s also the unsavory matter of the rape/murder scene. I don’t remember this from the book, but at some point, the creature breaks into Victor’s room and rapes/murders his fiancé after she pities the creature and offers it help. Rape/murder is not the kind of fun brutality I expect from my schlocky gimmicky horror stories. Its inclusion blights Frankenstein‘s otherwise family-friendly-feel-good tone.

Not experiencing the role-swapped version is a significant downside to this movie, I can’t go back in time and catch the next night’s show to see Cumberbatch play Victor and likewise with Miller’s creature. I can’t find a home video release available for purchase. This pains me as a physical media nerd, I want both performances available on the same disc. I want to experience both performances. I want to pick them apart and analyze which is my favorite.

Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein won’t appeal to mainstream audiences. I expect anyone but Sherlock nerds, Frankenstein nerds, literary nerds, and theater nerds would find this performance tedious and confusing unless they were obligated to watch it. Frankenstein played in our town for one showing only. My wife and I were the only people in the theater. Just us, no one else.

That’s a lie, there were 30 or so other people there too… all teenagers from a High school AP Lit class on a field trip with their teacher. Afterward the teacher took a big class photo in the front of the theater and asked us if we wanted to be in it to mark the weird occasion. I was game but the wife, she blushed. So if by an insane stroke of chance, you were in that class at that screening with those two old people… I hope you enjoyed the show but understand if you didn’t.

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