Propelling Oren Jacoby’s adaption of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man onto the stage of Court Theatre took years of persuasion. Ellison, who died in 1994 at age 80 with Invisible Man as the only novel published during his lifetime, could not envision a dramatic adaption of his existential book about the experiences of a young African American in the 1930s that would preserve its core. He may have been right. Although other complex novels have been successfully adapted for the stage — Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis being one example — the three-hour-long world premiere of Invisible Man at Court Theatre left this theatergoer exhausted and unenlightened.
This is not to say that the production has nothing to recommend it. With a capable cast and stunning scenic design by Troy Hourie and thrilling video projections by Alex Koch, Invisible Man represents a powerful group effort and a herculean will to succeed. But what sinks the adaptation is the failure to make the leap from the page to the stage. This isn’t because the adaptation isn’t true to the book — indeed, every word is lifted from Ellison’s work — but there is no dramatic device to connect the disjointed scenes, none of the transitions that move the reader from paragraph to paragraph.
Director Christopher McElroen intensifies this disconnect in his staging. With the Invisible Man (Teagle F. Bougere) at the center of almost every scene, too often the other characters talk from behind him, like voices from a bad dream. Were the characters to engage with one another more directly, the audience might in turn be engaged. Alternately, had the adaptation dispensed with all the peripheral characters to focus on the Invisible Man, the result could have been a one-character play like Court Theatre’s recent An Illiad, one of the most compelling pieces of drama in Chicago in years.
It is not clear, however, that Bougere would be up to the job of sustaining the necessary intensity of a one-man show. His acting seemed drained of spirit, too much like the character himself. Or perhaps it was the effort of making his way through too many hours of material.
Cutting the play from three acts to two by eliminating the first act might improve it substantially. Act 1 takes place in the American south, at a black college where the Invisible Man botches his handling of a white trustee played by Bill McGough, earning the disapproval of the school’s dean (A.C. Smith). All of this back story would be better revealed throughout the next two acts, which take place in New York’s Harlem district, where the Invisible Man takes himself in search of employment and undergoes a series of abasements, not the least of which comes about through the efforts of the Communist party organizers who seek to promote him.
All that need be retained from Act 1 is the play’s opening, in which the Invisible Man sits alone under a single bare illuminated light bulb over which a curvy canopy of hundreds of incandescent bulbs is suspended like an art installation (lighting design by John Culbert). The Invisible Man tells us that he has stolen the electricity to illuminate that sea of light bulbs as he takes refuge in an all-white building, and the bulbs come to life to highlight various moments in the performance. Those lights and other the elements in Hourie’s set, like the doors that the characters rotate as in a dance, more effectively communicate the play’s themes — alienation, the inability to control one’s world — than the words themselves.
Rounding out the cast are Lance Baker, Kimm Beavers, Tracey N. Bonner, Chris Boykin, Kenn E. Head, Paul Stovall and Julia Watt, all of them giving their best to multiple roles.
Court Theatre at the University of Chicago, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
Through Feb. 19
Tickets: 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org; $35–$45, with rush tickets available at some performances
Photos: Michael Brosilow