High Visibility

“I am an invisible man.” To begin a play with that phrase can’t help but raise expectations. Court Theatre’s current run of “Invisible Man” has especially high expectations to reckon with, owing to both the long history of the celebrated novel and the nature of the production: this is the first time the book has been adapted for stage.

The process of adapting “Invisible Man” for the stage began some years ago when film director and screenwriter Oren Jacoby paired up with Christopher McElroen, a New York-based stage director. The work posed challenges for the two early on–getting the rights to the novel from the Ralph Ellison Trust was not easy. Because of Ellison’s qualms about letting out his work for adaptation, the trust has closely monitored use of the book.

The script is composed only of direct quotations pulled from the novel, which was published 60 years ago this year. Though the work’s first-person narration has been pared down considerably, it has been a battle to whittle down the script to a manageable length. The show runs for three hours with two intermissions, which seems long until you consider that for most of last year, Jacoby, McElroen, and Court staff traveled around the country hosting readings, cutting chunks of the script each time.

The first of these readings was held in November of 2010, and the idea of adapting “Invisible Man” immediately struck a chord with Court and its audiences. “The show represents an intersection of Court’s recent mission–new adaptations and African-American stories,” says Court dramaturge Drew Dir. According to Dir, this story should be especially interesting when told in Hyde Park, both a South Side cultural hub and Barack Obama’s home base.

Both the novel’s content as well as it form proved difficult to rework–its non-linear, first-person narration of the title character’s journey from aspiring professor to radical spokesperson for “the race” is difficult to present onstage. The flashback, the voiceover, the memory, which are all vital elements of Ellison’s prose, might be better suited to the silver screen, where it is easier to rapidly switch between images. Court has taken on the challenge, and the product comes very close to a screen-like adaptation, even if at times the visuals come off more assaulting than arresting. The production is clearly meant to astonish and entertain–the sheer mass of lighting and projection effects make the small theater space shimmer like Times Square.

The design is difficult and intense, incorporating many intricate movements of partial walls and floor props. The effect is a little odd–the design is so technical and sophisticated that it feels slightly over-executed. The director and the designers,  brought in from New York, have had over a year to stew on the project, so every detail has been calculated and checked over. The whole technical component, dubbed “aggressive” by Dir, is so powerful it’s almost blinding. The unfortunate result is that it’s powerful enough to overshadow the acting, which often manages to hit right on target, especially considering the number of roles each actor must play–there are ten actors and twenty four characters. Invisible Man, played by Teagle Bougere, has more lines than you can shake a stick at, and he delivers them flawlessly and with poise. The actor playing Ras the Destroyer and the university president is also a standout.

What’s next for Jacoby’s “Invisible Man?” Dir says that there are many different productions to come. “The book has never not been relevant…we want to reexamine “Invisible Man” in a new epoch,” he states, sharing the sentiment of many other theatres around the nation. The script is expected to develop beyond this stage and emerge within a few years as a more polished work–hopefully with fewer flashing lights. And in case you’re wondering, Court’s master electrician proudly delivers the number of bare bulbs onstage in Court’s design at exactly five hundred thirty-five.

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through February 19. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org

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