It’s the classic tale you half-remember from high school English: Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale, “The Modern Prometheus,” of a mad scientist who does the unthinkable: creates a man.
There’s no one way to tell a story like Frankenstein. You can change the setting, improvise on the details and give more or less screen/stage time to different characters. But it’s still a classic story of power, morality and God complexes. There is no hero, there will be death and darkness will ultimately rule.
Unless you’re Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder.
Then you riff on the story to showcase the mad scientist’s descendent, set it in modern times and have some fun with a sexy blonde Bavarian assistant, comic-relief hunchbacks (with a moveable hunchback) and an awkward Creature with gigantic lifted black boots to give him height and a monster walk. You make 1974 comedy masterpiece Young Frankenstein, seen recently at Fathom’s special event with Brooks’ special intro.
This type of take on a classic story is reminiscent of the recent Pride & Prejudice & Zombies redux or theBaz Luhrmann color and sound explosion that was Romeo + Juliet. Classic themes, with radically unique takes. Themes we inherently understand get play in Hollywood, on Broadway and on the printed page, so there’s no wonder we eat them up. Sequels do sparkling business for a reason. Familiarity breeds dollars.
Another redux on the Frankenstein theme is the DCPA Theatre Company version playing in theatres now, the U.S. debut of the Danny Boyle-directed, Nick Dear-penned version with a twist. The actors playing the Creature and Dr. Frankenstein switch every other performance. Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch originated the roles in London in 2011, but now Denver has the privilege of viewing Sullivan Jones and Mark Junek swap out the drastically different yet remarkably similar characters.
Both versions of this story, Wilder’s innocent yet brilliantly driven Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fraaahhnkenschteeen” to differentiate from the horrible family name and because it’s hilarious) and the modern, visceral take presented on-stage by Jones and Junek, have the challenge and the ultimate success putting a unique stamp on a story that’s roughly 200 years old. Shelley may have given a name to the doctor, but pop culture has given him new life every so often.
Seeing both versions within a week of each other (for the first time, I know I’m a film rube — it is known) enforces the similarities and differences to be mined in the story. Wilder’s manic acting fits perfectly with the “not that Frankenstein” doctor he’s portraying for full hilarity. The clichéd Halloween-town essence of Young Frankenstein’s Transylvania setting is the perfect backdrop, and the film’s then-cutting-edge physical and raunchy comedy holds up remarkably well.
And even though Theatre Company’s Frankenstein could not have more of a different mood, the same themes are present: isolation and rejection, the essence of humanity and our divided view on the world as either driven by Fate or controlled by our own actions. They’re just played for sorrow, heartbreak and empathy rather than a belly laugh.
Was Young Frankenstein destined to create a monster like his forefather was perhaps destined to make his own? Was the resulting Creature unable to control his urges and therefore the fault of the master instead? There’s several lines inTheatre Company’s Frankenstein about the nature of God, Man and Slave and how those can interchange depending on whoever has the least to lose. They hold the power. Young Frankenstein plays this for humor with some well-placed dick jokes, but the lesson is the same.
Humor or terror alike can get the blood pumping and our baser instincts out to play. See Young Frankenstein, see Theatre Company’s Frankenstein — they’re two sides of the same coin that reflects our humanity back to us.