Friday, January 10, 2014

L.A. Theatre Works Presents National Theatre Live in High Definition: Don’t Miss It! Review by M.R. Hunter

There is an invaluable opportunity to see the best theater coming out of London. It doesn't require a passport or a pat down through airport security. Located at the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus (convenient for Westsiders and southern valley folks), L.A. Theatre Works hosts monthly HD screenings straight from the boards of the National Theatre. "Great! Thanks for the reminder!" you might be saying to yourself only to forget five minutes later about this exciting program. Listen up, because I have some invaluable insights into both these screenings and the amazing double feature lineup tomorrow, Jan. 11, of "Hamlet" and "Frankenstein."

Time is valuable so let's start with the good stuff upfront. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley has suffered more than has been enlightened by cinematic adaptations and there is a current blockbuster with the inauspicious title "I Frankenstein" opening later this month. Forget every Frankenstein you've ever known unless you've already seen director Danny Boyle's humanistic production of Nick Dear's philosophical and psychological tragic adaptation. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller play dual roles as the Doctor Frankenstein and the monster. The names Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller should ring a couple of bells. Both are currently playing the role of Sherlock Holmes. Cumberbatch is starring in the BBC version and Miller stars alongside Lucy Liu in CBS' Elementary. Any fan of one or both of these shows should make a considerable effort to see what both these men are capable of beyond the restrictions of television drama. Nothing against these shows but after seeing "Frankenstein" it's difficult to watch Miller play anything else except the monster with a heart and a soul yearning for acceptance. Flip the roles, and Cumberbatch plays the monster this Saturday with Miller as Dr. Frankenstein. Two roles, two men in this 2011 world premiere right before both were cast as the idiosyncratic Holmes. Coincidence? Hardly, but it requires seeing where the magic all began and that's by making "Frankenstein" an absolute must on your bucket list.

I say this with all sincerity. Sure, I point in the direction of good theater every year you permit me this luxury. I believe in theater not only as an art form but as a way of connecting that I haven't yet found in anything else. In short, I am biased. But "Frankenstein" transcends theater. There isn't anyone on this planet who won't be moved, stunned, mind blown and effectively changed as an individual on viewing Boyle's masterpiece. It can't happen. It isn't plausible. Why?

Because perfection is sublime, and the National Theatre's "Frankenstein" hits every chord masterfully both artistically and as an examination of the human condition. In a running time of 90 minutes, there isn't anything wasted. Every moment, every utterance and surprise is magnificent from its opening scene of the monster literally being born and learning how to walk to the end with Dr. Frankenstein and his creature in an epistemological battle between the love, devotion and hate between the creator and the created. At its most superficial level, "Frankenstein" delivers cutting edge technology, exquisite lighting design and steampunk inspired sets, sensational optical elements and probably the best acting of Cumberbatch and Miller's careers. Boyle's shrewd and relentlessly creative eye is ever-present without being overly demonstrative. He clearly trusts his cast and respects his team in this collaborative work.

Not seeing "Frankenstein" is entirely possible. It is a travesty though for those who've yet walked away transformed. That's the deal. Wish it were otherwise but here's the skinny…"Frankenstein" amid a clamor and several petitions demanding otherwise will not be released as a DVD for the viewing public. This is due to rights issues as well as the artistic integrity of Boyle, Cumberbatch and Miller who believe, erroneously, I might be so bold to add, that this play can only be fully appreciated live or through these limited screenings. They have that luxury, I suppose, but it really is an injustice with a future resolve undetermined. At the very least, the absolute minimum, "Frankenstein" should be available as a teaching resource to schools and art institutions around the globe. It is incomparable to years of study when confronted with its largesse and sheer majesty of control, expression, nuance and craft.

Until this is rectified by popular demand and there is that sliver of chance due to fans of "Frankenstein," you, my friend, reading this have probably already missed the boat. Now I know you're probably thinking… "a 90 minute play about anything doesn't have the power to change me or my life." Yeah, sounds preposterous don't it (even to the most avid theatergoer). Well, far be it from me to not convince you otherwise because "Frankenstein" is bar none the most impactful theater of this century so far. Just is. The way in which you see the world will be indelibly altered upon viewing "Frankenstein." 

To the purist theater lover who avoids attending anything less than live, Boyle is a notable film director who makes use of his talents in this screening with excellent cinematography that almost trumps the atmosphere of a live staging. To the film lover who'd rather hunker down in a dark movie theater than see live performances, I challenge you to find anything in this version of "Frankenstein" that competes with any cinematic form to date (even the upcoming action flick). The National Theatre production leaves them all behind. But only a small portion of the population will benefit from having seen this in any format. It is one of my vanities to urge anyone to plunk down twenty bucks on an invaluable return. Hell, you can contact me directly if you feel "Frankenstein" didn't live up to my hype.

I saw the December screening with Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein with mixed feelings and misgivings. I appreciate these HD screenings and years ago wrote lovingly about L.A. Theatre Works when they premiered this series with "The Importance of Being Earnest." But, truthfully, I tend to shy away from anything that is less than the real deal. This is partly due to the fact that it seems unfair to review something that is essentially taped. The other issue is that the screenings are limited to usually a weekend or one showing. How can I blather on about something that has already departed by the time of my publishing?

I blather on here because I was fortunate enough to have a friend damn near demand I see "Frankenstein" in HD at LATW. He saw it in London (not live but that's a whole other kettle of fish) and oddly enough in the months preceding this viewing spoke highly of this production. When it landed at James Bridges Theater through LATW, he came within an inch of my life to see this. "It's never the same as seeing it live," I whined plaintively. Given my affection for ginger men (Cumberbatch) and the TV show Elementary, I was persuaded.

I didn't expect what I saw. I didn't fathom by the curtain bow I would applaud as if I saw this live. I had no preparation in advance that I would say "This is the BEST theater I've ever seen and it wasn't live." I have foregone my original conclusions that HD screenings aren't equivocal because I was wrong. They are a compliment if you do not have the ability to travel to London every few months. Do you? No? Then you'll want to take advantage of L.A. Theatre Works' National Live HD series.

Tickets for "Frankenstein" are scarce. After seeing Miller as the monster (childlike and awe-struck in his interpretation) I immediately turned to my wise friend and said, "I gotta see it again! I have to see Cumberbatch as the monster!" Being honest is part of my responsibility as a critic, in truth I just wanted to see the production again, and again and again. In any lineup. We had tickets for this Saturday's switch up before the night was finished. (I noticed quite a flurry of tickets were bought at the same time leading me to believe my fellow patrons that evening felt the same way). Confirmed! I will be at "Frankenstein" tomorrow watching Miller as the Doctor and Cumberbatch as the monster. Eager? You betcha!

Part of this is due to the fact that I have no idea when I will see Boyle's "Frankenstein" again. I have been provided a secret and a tiny part of me is selfish enough to want to play it close to my vest but another (and stronger impulse) is to make sure anyone can feel the magnitude of such a glorious work of art. I don't want you, gentle reader, not to know the magic as I have known it. That's my job, thankless as it is. I want to see you there tomorrow and come up to me afterwards with your thoughts and feelings (you'll have a bushel of them). I can take it. I'll even invite you out to pie and coffee if you so delight as you'll need to vent your thoughts with a bit of meringue and caffeine. I understand. This "Frankenstein" is unequivocal.

With any luck I have your attention. Cool. Let's talk about this National Live HD screening at LATW. This is one of the most vital opportunities to see theater from our buddies the Brits. Okay, I won't make a sweeping generalization by saying they can pummel us on the stage but I will say that being able to see theater straight from the UK is a privilege. The problem with privileges is that they can be easily revoked. L.A. Theatre Works is one of the coolest theater companies in town without any competition. I cannot speak highly enough about the amazing, ground-breaking work that Susan Loewenberg tirelessly does on behalf of local audiences.

For those unfamiliar with L.A. Theatre Works, they contribute to audiences in various and important ways. Firstly, they present radio recordings with big name stars in the cast. I'm talking red carpet names which should turn TMZ's head a bit in their general direction. They cast working actors as well as notable celebs in their staged radio plays every month. The intimacy factor of being so close to your favorite stars of film and TV is well worth the cost of admission but so is the artistic sensibility of watching a recording live. Let me repeat: LIVE! The actors stand before a microphone with a script but they are rehearsed and on point. Local directors such as Bart DeLorenzo and others such as Martin Jarvis have a rare opportunity to experiment and focus on the dialogue rather than worry over a fully staged production. This allows for more creativity and a focused attention to the words of the script, a paramount sometimes lost in realized productions.

The other aspect is the National Theatre Live screenings. Don't take this series for granted as they are limited in terms of venue and the hosts. L.A. Theatre Works takes the honor seriously of being able to reach out across the pond so to speak and present these HD screenings to audiences of around 300 viewers. However, these screenings are only as good as there are butts in seats to be less than kind. Santa Barbara and other cities have attempted these National Live HD screenings and frankly failed when the numbers of attendees didn't add up to the expense of showing them. "Frankenstein" is an excellent example, and perhaps the leader in folks being able to see a National Theatre production from the comfort of their own area. In other words, without audience members the future of this series is questionable and in jeopardy.

What does that mean to you? Well, without your support it means that programs like this fail. Theater goers may eschew with the notion of seeing a taped performance but they would be foolhardy as there are production values and merit to seeing it in this format. I would be poorer for not seeing "Frankenstein" whatever that form might be and due to Boyle's illustrious film career, I was able to see a film/theater piece that straddles the fence of both extremely well.

I'm a believer in L.A. Theatre Works. Now that I have "Frankenstein" under my belt, I'm even more of a devotee to their National Theatre HD screenings, enough to elect for a double feature tomorrow of "Hamlet" and "Frankenstein."

I hope to see you at either screening tomorrow, particularly "Frankenstein" but tickets are limited so grab them while you can. I'll be the blonde with glasses in the middle row with tears streaming down her cheeks applauding a cast who cannot hear me. Hey, I lack compunction when necessity calls for it. Swing by and say "Hi." Let's talk "Frankenstein" or maybe "Hamlet" too if I have convinced you. There's plenty of live theater in Los Angeles but I'm going to be crossing the pond without bothering to take my shoes off. That's a win-win scenario for me.

After seeing "Frankenstein" last month, I'm not only a believer and supporter of L.A. Theatre Works, but an aficionada. L.A. Theatre Works presents the best in all their productions but also offer us an occasion to be transformed.

Lucky us!

See "Hamlet" and/or "Frankenstein" in HD on Jan. 11
"Hamlet" is @ 1:30 p.m.
"Frankenstein" is @ 7:30 p.m.
The James Bridges Theater at UCLA
235 Charles E. Young Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90095
Conveniently located on the northern edge of UCLA campus, just off Sunset (at Hilgard)
Parking in lot #3

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