We see right through this H.G. Wells classic.

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We see right through this H.G. Wells classic.

How do you make an actor disappear onstage during a live performance? In staging The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells' 1897 science-fiction novel, the Aquila Theatre Company faces the tough task of making the original Mr. Cellophane convincingly transparent. Aquila's producing artistic director Peter Meineck confirms that the show's star will actually vanish, though he emphasizes that the trick is not the show's primary selling point.

"I think a mistake about any stage production of Invisible Man is to make it a magic show," Meineck says. "We do make him invisible and see the effects of that, but we're more interested in the psychology. It's about what happens to somebody in society when they can't be seen and what that can drive them to do."

In Wells' story, an English scientist named Griffin makes himself invisible. After his initial euphoria, the increasingly alienated Griffin feels his humanity and sanity begin to follow his flesh into nonexistence.

A recently released DVD packages the highly regarded 1933 film version, starring Claude Rains, with sequels such as The Invisible Woman and Invisible Man's Revenge. (Oddly, 2003's Erotic Misadventures of the Invisible Man didn't make the cut.) Although he praises the book's cinematic companion, Meineck says Aquila's production has more in common with the original text.

"The film, which at the time was the height of special effects, actually diverts quite heavily from the story," Meineck says. "There's a love interest and a car chase. We were more faithful to the narrative. Also, the movie has a gothic horror feel, while we went more for showing the psychological effects. You actually feel sympathy for the invisible man and his plight."

Meineck founded Aquila in 1991 in London. The British-American ensemble, now based in New York, has earned accolades with its bold presentations of the classics.

"We're really trying to discover why these plays endured," Meineck says. "We have a process where we thoroughly research the plays, put them in a workshop environment and really free them up from a lot of the strange, preconceived ideas that people have about classic theater. We're trying to tap into that essential energy that made these such great works."

Aquila often injects smart humor into its productions, and there's some black comedy to be found in Invisible Man.

"The villagers laugh at the invisible man and enjoy excommunicating him from their society, and how they do that is funny, but it's a disturbing funny," Meineck says.

Aquila also excels at converting constant movement into a sort of choreography. Its productions are aesthetically engaging because of its cast, not because of elaborate backdrops or lever-and-pulley trickery. The actor's stealthy steps, more so than the costumes and smoke-and-mirrors sleight of hand, sell Griffin as unseen.

"It's almost a dance show with words," Meineck says. "We play with the idea of perception, making him headless at first, so it's a piece of the imagination. But because the actors are so fluid and there's so much movement, it's also visually stunning."

As enjoyable as the performance might be, it remains an unsettling story.

"It's very much a morality tale that asks people not only the effects of science but also how society treats outsiders," Meineck says. "Ultimately, he becomes a terrorist."

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