Theater Review: INVISIBLE MAN (The Court Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on January 30, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

INVISIBLE MAN IS DIFFICULT TO SEE

Invisible Man is a complex, panoramic, symbolic novel that’s an unlikely candidate for adaptation to the stage. It’s a sprawling work crowded with characters and incidents and drenched in the author’s densely textured prose and his elusive view of the plight of black people in American society. That makes for a daunting and possibly unwinnable challenge for an adapter. Ralph Ellison’s book may be a classic on the printed page, but it struggles for coherence in live action, at least in the Court Theatre’s ambitious world premiere presentation, which runs three hours with two intermissions.

Court Theatre presents Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – with Teagle Bougere – adapted by Oren Jacoby – directed by Christopher McElroen – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

It’s a brave try that should please patrons familiar with the original. For others, the play can be murky, confusing, and ultimately tedious. But the most vociferous critic of the adaptation will have nothing but praise for the heroic performance by Teagle Bougere in the title role.

Invisible Man traces an unnamed young African American’s search for his identity in modern American society. The man is the narrator and chief character in this story which begins in the Deep South and travels to the Harlem district in New York City. The invisible man tells his story as a flashback while he nests in his bizarre home beneath the streets of New York City, a large room illuminated by hundreds of lights powered by electric current stolen from the city power company.

Court Theatre presents Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – with Teagle Bougere – adapted by Oren Jacoby – directed by Christopher McElroen – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The man’s story begins on the campus of a black college in the South. The man is brimming with youthful optimism and wholesome hopes for the future, but he is betrayed by the unscrupulous president of the university, who sends him North with sealed letters of introduction that will ruin any changes for employment.

After arriving in New York City, the invisible man is manipulated by both white and black forces. He ends up as a spokesman for a Communist-style organization and competes against a militant Black Nationalist group. Finally, disillusioned and bitter, the man burrows into his hole beneath the ground where he tells his story directly to the audience.

Court Theatre presents Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – with Teagle Bougere – adapted by Oren Jacoby – directed by Christopher McElroen – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Adaptor Oren Jacoby cherry-picks major incidents from the novel; many of the episodes are portrayed with considerable dramatic power and vivid stagecraft, but they lack connective narrative tissue. It’s difficult to follow the story as the man is buffeted by social forces beyond his control and often beyond his understanding. The dramatic arc largely fails to coherently trace the invisible man from naïve optimist to eloquent orator and, finally, into a person who buries himself in his hole. Much happens but little makes overall narrative sense. The invisible man’s continual references to his search for identity are difficult to grasp, though his identity crisis forms the crux of the novel.

Ellison published his novel in 1952 and the action time frame, though unspecified, takes place during the 1930’s and 1940’s. That gave the story a certain immediacy when it first came out. But much of that immediacy is dissipated six decades later. The flood of more than 20 characters often becomes a blur as the viewer tries to follow the many episodes – some naturalistic, others hallucinatory and nightmarish. Certain audiences will find the play exciting, others boring and pointless.

Court Theatre presents Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – with Teagle Bougere – adapted by Oren Jacoby – directed by Christopher McElroen – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The Court has assembled a cast of 10 to portray the multiple characterizations and ensemble. Teagle Bougere is remarkable as the invisible man. He is on stage for virtually the entire play and delivers a majority of the play’s lines (all the text comes from Ellison’s novel). The role is immensely demanding from a physical standpoint and requires enormous skill in articulating the invisible man’s transformation from gullible young idealist to cynical dropout. If the man’s many character permutations don’t coalesce, it’s not Bougere’s fault. He gives a resourceful, dynamic performance, as good as any we’ll see all season.

Court Theatre presents Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – with Teagle Bougere – adapted by Oren Jacoby – directed by Christopher McElroen – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

Director Christopher McElroen keeps the pace brisk, sometimes dizzying, especially when the performers move portable doorways around the stage in a high-energy square dance of props. On Troy Hourie’s sets, McElroen guides the complex production smoothly from scene to scene, fighting an ultimately losing battle against the herky-jerky nature of the adaptation. The designers – Jacqueline Firkins (costumes), John Culbert (lighting), and Josh Horvath (sound) – have combined to create a production of considerable visual and aural dynamism.

The supporting cast does flow from character to character and location to location with commendable precision. The ensemble consists of Lance Stuart Baker, Kimm Beavers, Tracey Bonner, Chris Boykin, Kenn E. Head, Bill McGough, Paul Oakley Stoval, A. C. Smith, and Julia Watt. They all have highlight moments, they all work well together, and they all seem to understand what’s happening on stage even when the audience is struggling to make sense of the fragmented narrative.

Court Theatre presents Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – with Teagle Bougere – adapted by Oren Jacoby – directed by Christopher McElroen – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

This is the first time Invisible Man has been dramatized, and it’s understandable why it’s taken this long for a theater to take on the challenges of the novel. Possibly a production a couple of hours longer would clarify the narrative thrust of the story…but where is the audience for a five-hour play? Bougere’s performance will be enticement enough to bring in connoisseurs of fine acting. While the play does supply those fine individual moments, it is not enough to sustain an entire evening.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Invisible Man
The Court Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on February 19
for tickets, visit Court

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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