Frankenstein: It is a matter of black and white

DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Much has been made of the mirrored relationship between Man and Maker in Mary Shelley’s enduring Gothic classic, Frankenstein. Creator and Cadaver. Father and Son. God and Man.

The DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming new staging of Frankenstein explores a whole new and incendiary duality: Black and white.

Frankenstein is, of course, the familiar story of the young science student who assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses. In 2011, London’s National Theatre did some Frankenstein-like reanimating of its own when it breathed astonishing new life into Shelley’s nearly 200-year-old horror story. Noted film director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and playwright Nick Dear had their two leading actors alternate nightly playing the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. Returning audiences not only got to consider how differently the two actors approached the same roles, they got to witness Son become Father. Man become God.

The National Theatre staging was a sensation. Now, five years later, the DCPA becomes the first theatre company in North America to revivify the London creation. DCPA Director Sam Buntrock and Artistic Director Kent Thompson will also have their actors trade roles. But there’s more. At a time when racial tensions in America are at their highest levels in 40 years, acclaimed actors Sullivan Jones and Mark Junek have been cast to play Frankenstein and The Creature.

Jones is black. Junek is white. And Thompson knows that may take on added visual significance with today’s audiences, because one more vital relationship between the story’s two archetypal characters is dominance and submission. Master and Slave.

Thompson is often known to cast actors of color to play characters traditionally played by white actors. So that’s nothing new. But in a year of ever-escalating racial tension in America that flared anew this week in Charlotte and Tulsa, yes, Thompson says, he is trying to make a statement. A bold one about “the complex ways people from different cultures and classes relate to one another,” Thompson said. “And I’m highlighting that by having actors of two different races switching in these two roles.”

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A notable departure from Shelley’s source novel is the newly adapted play’s primary focus on The Creature – grotesque as he is, and yet childlike in his innocence. The real horror of Shelley’s story is not those silly (and jettisoned) neck bolts made famous by Boris Karloff. It is the doctor’s blithe rejection of his bewildered creature, and casting him out into a hostile world. Meeting with cruelty wherever he goes, The Creature grows increasingly vengeful. And that all will inevitably look different to a contemporary audience on the nights when Jones is the actor playing the unfairly beaten creature. And that’s OK, says Thompson.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever be a post-racial society,” he said. “But I hope one day we will be post-racist.”

Buntrock, who is British, said the instinct to cast one Frankenstein Quote. Sam Buntrock white and one African-American actor in the rotating roles was not so much to make some great social statement, but rather stems from a responsibility he feels, and Thompson shares, to increase diversity in the theatre.

“The impulse came from the notion that the boundaries of casting must be brought down,” Buntrock  said. “It’s irresponsible in this day and age to be locked into one sense of how a character should look.”

That said, he has talked at length with his actors about the impact this particular casting may have on audiences. “Yes, I am interested in what that provokes in the viewer,” he said. “And this is going to bring the audience face-to-face with their attitudes.”

The supreme challenge of two actors having to bring two entire characters to life on alternating nights is affords a rich and rare creative opportunity for potential audiences.

“In the original London production the reviewers and the audiences were fascinated at how differently they approached each character,” Thompson said. “They were not the exact same performance, and the dynamic between them changed.”

Frankenstein actors

DCPA actors Sullivan Jones and Mark Junek will rotate and alternate in portraying Frankenstein and his Creature.

The New York Times critic Ben Brantley found it thrilling to attend Frankenstein on successive nights in London. “Watching each of these actors find their feet and test their body parts is such a dizzy high point that it can’t be topped,” he wrote. And their approaches are just different enough to make you want to see both.”

Those who do will see that Frankenstein continues to strike disturbingly urgent chords that go far beyond race, and encompassing “otherness” of all kinds.

“There are many other things that make The Creature scary,” said Thompson. “There’s his deformity. That he can’t talk. That he seems to be brutish.”

“Otherness” tends to evoke ignorance, cruelty and fear, said Thompson, who is fascinated by what makes “otherness” frightening to other people in the first place, be it disability, skin color … or even a person’s presidential preference.

Frankenstein Quote. Kent Thompson“All of that fear multiplies once you start to consider race and culture and age and political opinions,” said Thompson. “It’s easy to demonize the person on the other side of an issue. That is going on all over America today. The challenge we are left is: “How do we stop demonizing each other?’”

Thompson pointed out that the man in power in this scenario – the omnipotent doctor – would likely fall somewhere squarely on what we would call “the autism spectrum” today.

“He’s a genius, but his ability to emotionally respond and psychologically understand the consequences of his actions has been thwarted,” Thompson said. Yet, he holds the power to create life in his hands as surely as a gun would hold the power to end it.”

But while the landmark London staging offered audiences a whole new way of looking at the Frankenstein myth – as will the DCPA’s team of designers and actors – “None of that profoundly changes the major theme of the piece,” Thompson said. Which is, essentially: “Is it even ethically appropriate for man to create life? I mean, once you start down that road, how do you stop?”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Photo gallery: More on the making of Frankenstein in Denver

'Frankenstein' in Denver
Photos from the making of ‘Frankenstein’ in Denver. To see more, click the forward arrow in the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

: Ticket information

Frankenstein• Sept. 30-Oct. 30
• Stage Theatre
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Oct. 23
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

Previous NewsCenter coverage:

Breathing life into the Frankenstein set: ‘It’s alive!
A Frankenstein ‘that will make The Bible look subtle
How Danny Boyle infused new life into Frankenstein
Casting set for Frankenstein and The Glass Menagerie
Introducing DCPA Theatre Company’s 2016-17 season artwork
Kent Thompson on The Bard, The Creature and the soul of his audience
2016-17 season announcement

Follow the DCPA on social media @DenverCenter and through the DCPA News Center.

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