Live Theater on the Big Screen and Frankenstein

Have you noticed the trend? Movie theaters aren’t just for movies anymore. Many of them are adding live opera, ballet, and theatre to their program—even if none it is actually live in that particular theater. The actual performance may be happening as you watch, or it may have been recorded—probably London or New York. But your local movie house is projecting it onto the big screen.

The Balboa has recently started showing ballet and opera. In doing so, they have joined the Cerrito, Elmwood, Lark, and Rafael in this trend. Even my local AMC multiplex now shows the Metropolitan opera in between the 3D blockbusters. They’ve got a Il Trovatore Encore (translation: not a live broadcast) Wednesday night.

I’ve been noticing this trend for awhile, but I finally experienced it last night, when my wife and I attended a screening of the National Theatre Live production of Frankenstein at the Elmwood. The experience combined the pleasures of live theatre and the big screen, providing some (but not all) of the excitement of being there with the intimacy of close-ups. The sounds of the live audience played through the surround speakers, which seemed gimmicky at first but after a bit helped convey the atmosphere.

Even the $22 ticket price was a compromise between live theatre and cinema experiences.

I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect that theaters make a good profit on these presentations. Why else are more theaters jumping on the bandwagon? I doubt the Elmwood made much money Tuesday night; the theater was nearly empty. But last month my wife and I tried to see the same show at the Cerrito, and it was sold out.

Technically, the image quality was a disappointment—far from high-quality digital projection. From the second row, I could actually see the pixels, which made it look like I was watching everything through a screen door.

And what about Frankenstein, which the Elmwood will screen again on Thursday night?

A- Frankenstein. Finally, something directed by Danny Boyle that I actually liked! Maybe he’s just better on the live stage.

Playwright Nick Dear starts his adaptation with the monster’s lonely birth. A horribly scarred and stitched man crawls out and tries to come to terms with existence. He must figure out how to use his arms, how to walk. This opening puts the focus on the creature, and helps us sympathize with someone who has no idea about anything. Before the play is half over, this grown child will be reading and reciting Paradise Lost, but using a halted, strained voice—like a stroke victim who has had to learn to speak all over again.

This poor man’s journey, and his inevitable clash with his arrogant creator, make up the heart of the play. A lot of philosophy and religion get discussed, but it never feels forced—as it does, quite frankly, in Shelley’s original novel (which focuses more on Frankenstein and less on his creation).

One complaint: The creature looks hideous, as he should, and looks plausible as a man sown together from dead bodies. But he doesn’t look like a monster. The story requires his appearance to inspire fear and violence, but I would expect people to react to him with pity. Or indifference. There were a lot of scared and maimed veterans in early 19th-century  Europe.

In the performance I saw, Benedict Cumberbatch played the monster, and Jonny Lee Miller played Frankenstein. Both of them gave excellent performances, but Cumberbatch had the juicier part. Thursday night, they switch places.