The Invisible Man
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 26, 2005
There are two important things to say about Aquila Theatre Company's latest opus, a stage version of H.G. Wells's famous novel The Invisible Man, created by Aquilans Peter Meineck, Anthony Cochrane, and Robert Richmond in collaboration with choreographer Doug Varone. The first is that it feels nothing like any other Aquila production I've ever seen—and I've been to just about everything they've put up in New York. What I expect from Aquila is playfulness: a reinvention of something familiar with boundless energy and irreverence. The Invisible Man isn't fun; it's somber and entirely serious from end to end. That's not a bad thing; it's just true—and useful, I think, in terms of managing expectations.
The second thing is that they have, nevertheless, certainly reinvented a classic. The Invisible Man—whether you know it from the book or the classic James Whale film starring Claude Rains or some other rendition—is generally construed to be about otherness; in Meineck's words, from a well-written program note: "One of the great surprises of the novel is the fact that we imagine all the advantages of being unseen but are actually shown the negatives: rejection, abject desperation, terrible loneliness, and violence." But this show takes a wholly different tack: it's not about how we'd act or feel if we were invisible, it's about how we feel and react to something invisible suddenly entering our lives. This production is about dissociation, panic, fear of the unknown. It's therefore enormously timely: the invisible stranger who enters the unnamed hospital where this piece takes place is a clear metaphor for any elusive lurking menace, from terrorists in a subway to suicide bombers in a shopping mall.
But once Varone and his collaborators have explored the ways that the characters behave when confronted with the stranger, they seem to run out of things to say. The Invisible Man loses steam for much of its second half, mostly repeating ideas that were introduced earlier. Not until the climactic "unmasking" does anything else really exciting happen in the piece.
The style of the show is heavily movement-based, either formal choreography or stylized movement/mime, all to Cochrane's amazing minimalist techno-mod score. The parts I loved best are the sequences where the actors, to cacophonous ambient noise (of, say, muffled sounds of machines, people, TVs from hospital rooms in distant corridors), depict the rhythms of routine life without actually doing or saying anything concrete—it's all suggested by exaggerated or approximated gestures and patterns of human motion. Varone and his cast are able to show us a splendid variety of everyday life in this manner, from the daily rounds of nurses to coffee breaks to a mild after-hours flirtation.
Interactions with the stranger are generally more dramatic and larger-than-life—a kind of muted fight choreography that makes the confrontation/horror feel removed from us and very far away. The vocabulary of movements for the stranger himself are jerky and pained, suggestive of his own agony. But the emphasis is always squarely on the hospital staff--stand-ins for us, the "normal" people, coping with something they can't see or explain.
The design—the sparest of sets by Meineck and Richmond, very cool costumes by Megan Bowers (including a well-designed head bandage for the invisible stranger), and stark, moody lighting by Jane Cox—contribute to the atmosphere of heightened unease.
The ten performers—all but one (Cochrane) members of Varone's company—are uniformly fine, with Peggy Baker and Larry Hahn particularly memorable as head nurse and janitor respectively; Daniel Charon has the challenging title role.