We’re so used to camp and comic versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that it’s a bit of a shock to encounter a theatrical experience that takes the story seriously as a statement about scientific hubris and an exploration of love, loneliness, hatred, good and evil — and what it really means to be human. In Nick Dear’s Frankenstein, we first see the scientist’s creation essentially newborn, as naked, confused and afraid, as unfit for the world, as those feral children who crawl out of deserts or forests or are discovered imprisoned in a dark contemporary basement: children without language who don’t even know their own names. Simple sensation amazes this creature, the fact that fire burns and snow is white and cold.
With Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature, this Frankenstein was a sensation when it opened in 2011 at London’s Royal National Theatre, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s production is the first in this country. Here, as in London, two actors rotate the lead parts, with Mark Junek as the Creature and Sullivan Jones playing Victor Frankenstein on the opening weekend show I attended.
Junek’s slow awakening as the evening began was mesmerizing, and his performance continued to rivet as the Creature began his wanderings and encounters the world: first a prostitute being attacked by a client, then a small family living in the woods. Exiled professor De Lacey is blind and therefore not repulsed by the Creature’s appearance: When he reaches for his guest’s face as a way of seeing him, it’s the first caring touch that the Creature has experienced. Secretly, he begins helping with the harvest. De Lacey teaches the Creature to read, and over time he becomes, in a sense, civilized; he quotes Milton in a newly impeccable Oxonian accent like the professor’s. But when De Lacey’s son and daughter-in-law see the Creature, they’re terrified and repulsed and drive him from their home. There’s a moral here about loathing those who are different from ourselves, a theme underlined by the fact that Jones is black and Junek white.
But the Creature is not entirely human, and this is the moment when he turns to violence — and questions of good and evil begin to percolate. Does the Creature have a soul? Does he understand the horror he’s committed? While we can no longer see him as innocent, we’ve also been shown that he’s capable of tenderness and love — more so, perhaps, than his coldhearted creator, who, despite all the benefits of education, a civilized life and the love of his beautiful Elizabeth, is unable to sustain human relationships.
Frankenstein has brought something terrible into the world, something that violates the natural order and usurps God’s power — as Mary Shelley and her fellow Victorians would certainly have seen it — because of his lack of empathetic imagination.
The first half of this production is fresh and surprising. Once the focus is less on the Creature and more on Frankenstein and his family, the dialogue gets a little tepid and the acting less electrifying — though youngster Charlie Korman has a fine, lively turn as Frankenstein’s little brother, William. Frankenstein is a repressed soul, and this may have guided Jones’s interpretation, but it’s too low-key; the pivotal scene where, surrounded by the freezing peaks of Mt. Blanc, the Creature persuades Frankenstein to create a woman for him, feels muffled when it should vibrate with tension.
The glory of this production lies in Junek’s portrayal of the Creature and in the stunning, brilliant tech. I can’t put a name to the shapes on the wall behind the action — writhing dark copper forms, an expanse that’s sometimes abstract and beautiful, sometimes a realistic sea of menacing vigilante faces — nor to the large suspended form glowing in different shapes and colors over the action: Is it a coffin? A canopy?
Director Sam Buntrock was nominated for a Tony for his direction of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, and it’s a privilege to see his work in Denver (for the second time; the first was Ed Downloaded), aided by set designer Jason Sherwood, Brian Tovar’s lighting and Charlie Miller’s projections. It all adds up to a magnificently entertaining and sometimes revelatory evening.
Frankenstein,presented by the Denver Center through October 30, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.