Adapted for the stage by Oren Jacoby
Based on the novel by Ralph Ellison
Directed by Christopher McElrden
At Court Theatre, Chicago
Sprawling adaption of Ralph Ellison’s novel overloads audiences
Advise to the Invisible Man: “Overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction…”
Oren Jacoby finally got novelist Ralph Ellison’s estate to sing off on his stage adaptation of the 600page novel, Invisible Man, by staying true to the source material. This may please those dispensing the rights but it leaves director Christopher McElroen with the difficult task of presenting the novel on stage. Despite a valiant performance by Teagle N. Bougere as the Black anti-hero everyman-the Invisible Man and a terrific flexible cast of ten, the world premiere of Invisible Man wears out its welcome over the 205 minute, 2 intermission playing time. Though their goal was lofty and many moments of the 3 hours+ production are most effect and theatrically wonderful, ultimately Jacoby’s adaptation needs a 45 minute trim and a tighter, clearer focus.
That being said, there is much to be praised in Court Theatre’s dramatic allegory. This work draws on French Existentialism, African-American folk lure with infusion of jazz-like improv as the show’s style moves from realism to surrealism, from tragedy to satire, to slapstick comedy with moments of high drama. Perhaps if this production wasn’t so ambitious the sprawling work would have resonated better with the audience. And having the heat turned almost to a boil further wore out the audience. Me and many other audience members fought hard to stay away. Trying to do too much in an overly long and dense show simply overloaded the audience.
But once the show is trimmed and refocused, Invisible Man will emerge as a masterful stage work. After all the text of the Invisible Man remains an important depiction of the American experience. Teagle F. Bougere’s tour de force performance as the Invisible Man demonstrates the human search for identity by an anti-hero everyman. I.M. struggles to find out who and what he is by leaving college and traveling to NYC’s Harlem. He tries in vain to find work, he gets injured in a paint factory, ends up living in boarding house run by a strong woman. I.M. demonstrates powerful oratory skills that leads the Brotherhood (Communists?) to employ him as a incendiary public speaker. The injustice of evictions and police shootings fuel I.M.’s rage. We witness several nicely stage scenes as director McElroen utilizes hot jazz, period photos and video as well an ever-portable s set (Troy Hourie’s set and Alex Koch’s projections) to convey the backdrop of I.M.’s journey.
I.M.comes off to me as more of a victim or pawn than a determined agent of change. He is manipulated by forces beyond his control. My main confusion lies in my belief that as presented, I.M. seems to be ruled more by events and others than driven by his own desires. Not having read the novel, I can’t tell if that is true to the source material.
This production has strong supporting players including Lance Stuart Baker, KennE. Head, A.C. Smith and Tracey N. Bonner. Once this work is refocused and trimmed, it’ll become an important theatrical work respectful of the groundbreaking 1952 novel. It is definitely worth a look – just stop at Starbucks for a jolt of caffeine so you won’t miss anything.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: January 21, 2012
For more info checkout the Invisible Man page on theatreinchicago.com
At Court Theatre, 5535 S.Ellis, Chicago, IL, call 773-753-4472, www.courttheatre.org, tickets $45 – $65, Wed. & Thurs. at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 pm, running time is 205 minutes with 2 intermissions,through February 19, 2012