'Frankenstein': The making of a two-headed monster

Director Sam Buntrock, on the benefit to audiences of seeing his ‘Frankenstein’ twice. His two leading actors will rotate nightly in the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 

Frankenstein is a play in a hurry, says Director Sam Buntrock. So the first thing Denver Center audiences will notice is that playwright Nick Dear has sliced off the first 100 pages of Mary Shelley’s classic source novel. The Theatre Company’s new staging opens instead with a birth – the animation of Victor Frankenstein’s hideous collection of moribund corpse parts. 

“Nick Dear is not interested in how we got there,” said Buntrock, whose live visual feast has its first preview performance tonight (Sept. 30) in the Stage Theatre. “There is very little backstory. It relies on you already knowing the story, which is smart. Frankenstein is so culturally understood that it’s a word we use every day. It’s in our lexicon. The play knows that.

“The fundamental moment is really when the Creature is born – and everything else is just claptrap.”

The second thing audiences will notice is that Buntrock’s two leading actors alternate nightly playing the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. In Denver, that will be Sullivan Jones and Mark Junek, who says this play is also not at all interested in the science of how the Creature comes to life. Instead it simply assumes that the Creature, despite being assembled from a variety of cadavers, is indeed a singular human being – and therefore capable of basic human traits including learning, memory, love and suffering.

“I think there is sort of a supernatural quality about this version of the Creature,” said Junek. “It is an almost fully formed human being but it has no impressions of humanity. So I think of it more as an alien – someone who has never directly experienced society or humanity before, but yet has a full capacity to learn.”

Except, as the well-known story goes, this society will not have it. Or him. Or any other Other. And we witness the lethal, legal and moral fallout.

A tag-team wrestling event

The challenge for both the director and his entire ensemble of actors is that they have essentially created two different plays – in just more than a month of rehearsal.

A Frankenstein actors“My approach was to first find out who Mark and Sullivan are as actors and then work out their needs,” said Buntrock. “Even though they are playing the two leading characters, there are huge sections where they aren’t interacting with each other onstage. So I have isolated them a lot of the time – and it’s been interesting to watch them because they both come to the exact same conclusions some of the time, and at other times they come up with their own versions.”

Sullivan compares those first few days of rehearsal to WWF tag-team wrestling. “One guy goes in and he puts the other guy in a headlock. Then he tags out, and the other guy does it. That’s kind of what we have been doing.”

Junek said he and Jones were freely stealing from one another other in the first few days of rehearsals. But once Buntrock isolated the actors, Jones added, “that freed us up to kind of craft our own performances.”

By encouraging his actors to go their own ways, Junek said, “I think Sam is admitting the obvious, which is that we are very different people, and we bring different things to the roles.”

But the more the actors explore the parallel lives of Frankenstein and his Creature, Sullivan says, the more they are discovering that there is more to this role-reversal idea than the actors simply trading places. The refined man of science and his hideous creation, they have discovered, essentially trade places themselves by the end of the story.

Frankenstein and race: It IS a matter of black and white

“The more we do this, the more clear it becomes that they are of the same cloth,” Sullivan said. “They are the same person. They are mirrors of each other. Or shadows.”

Buntrock promises a special satisfaction, he said, for those audiences who come back and see the play twice. (On Saturdays, audiences can see the play twice on the same day.)

“This is a play which really merits going back to anyway just because there are so many ideas in it, and it all happens so quickly,” Buntrock said. “It’s almost like one of those great films that you want to go back and see again because you get so much more out of it the second time. I think these are two phenomenal actors, and it’s a real treat to see what they both bring to it individually.”

'Frankenstein' stars Sullivan Jones, left, and Mark Junek.

‘Frankenstein’ stars Sullivan Jones, left, and Mark Junek. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter 

For Buntrock, a Tony Award nomination at 32

Buntrock’s life fundamentally changed at age 32 when he became one of the youngest directors ever to be nominated for a Tony Award, for the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Buntrock’s innovative infusion of animation and projected color not only helped the audience to visualize the brilliance of Georges Seurat’s perplexing, 1884 abstract masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – it has been credited with forever changing the role and expectations of multimedia in live theatre. The next year, for example, Les Misérables was reimagined without a barricade but with 180-degree scenographic projections of revolutionary Paris streets in its place.

 “We used projection to allow us to really tell the journey of the painting, starting as a charcoal line across the page all the way through to the last dab of paint,” said Buntrock. Ben Brantley of the New York Times said Buntrock “used 21st-century technology to convey the vision of a 19th-century Pointillist to truly enchanting effect.” But despite the “rhapsody of images” that Buntrock kept unfolding before the audience, “the great gift of this production,” Brantley wrote, “was its quiet insistence that looking is the art by which all people shape their lives.”

The Tony Award nomination opened doors for Buntrock, who has been living and working in the United States exclusively since 2011. “It’s the reason I have a career here,” said Buntrock, who added with a laugh, “It also means my name now has the words ‘Tony nominee’ in front of it in anything I read.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

In 2013, Buntrock accepted an invitation to direct the DCPA Theatre Company’s world premiere of Ed/Downloaded. How could he not? Playwright Michael Mitnick wrote the play specifically for Buntrock. The story is set in the near future, when you will be able to download your 10 favorite memories when you die – essentially leaving behind a carefully curated if not necessarily accurate representation of your life. When Ed dies and his girlfriend discovers he was cheating her, she sets about to change his digital scrapbook.

A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_JatteThe fun for Buntrock was combining live theatre with filmic elements. “So for example, in one scene, our theatrical reality is that the actors on the stage are in the woods,” Buntrock said. “But when we see the memory that goes with it, it’s Ed having been filmed in the real woods. It was extraordinary fun to play with those realities off each other.”

(Pictured above right: Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.’)

Buntrock loved “working with such incredible artists across the board at the Denver Center,” he said. “So when it came to being asked to come back for Frankenstein, of course I said yes.”

His expertise in animation and visual stimulation very much informs his approach to Frankenstein, which will include fire, rain, snow … “all of the elements,” he said.

Frankenstein“We are using a lot of technology. It’s not really that literal of a production. It’s much more evocative and suggestive than architectural. (Scenic Designer) Jason Sherwood, (Lighting Designer) Brian Tovar and (Projections Specialist) Charlie Miller have been working so hard with technology and with lights to find a way to make that organic and real and of the theatre, rather than seem superimposed.”

Buntrock has carried his greatest takeaway from Sunday in the Park with George with him to Frankenstein: It’s best, he said, when you take something that’s big … and distill it down.

“I am interested in diluting rather than complicating,” Buntrock said. “We had all this amazing technology to play with 10 years ago on Sunday in the Park with George, but a lot of our work was spent trying to find the smallest thing. Our challenge was how to use projection and strong, bold, almost filmic imagery onstage in a way that still allowed the audience’s imagination to engage.

“The most powerful thing that I have in my tool set as an director is an audience’s imagination.”

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:

Frankenstein and race: It IS a matter of black and white
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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