Conjurors of all persuasions—be you witches, illusionists, clergy or politicians—must find their way to the Shaw Festival to savour, surrender and salivate over playwright Michael O’Brien’s theatrical resurrection of H.G. Wells’ timeless and forever-troubling treatise on how not to be seen. The Invisible Man (disappearing on the stage of the Royal George Theatre until October 29) provides truly marvellous stagecraft and storytelling that go far beyond merely good theatre: the production succeeds at nearly every level and easily outdoes the colossal failure of the most recent Wells adaptation (Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds) that not even underwear-boy Scientology “R” Us Tom Cruise could morph into Mission Possible I.
O’Brien’s following this season’s mantra: above all else, humour. He’s focussed on the lighter side of James Griffin (masterfully rendered by Peter Krantz), the bandaged, false-nosed “stranger” whose scientific acumen ensures there’s nothing to reveal when the wraps come off. To keep the funny bone engaged, Neil Barclay gets deep into the skin of the occasionally abandoned tramp role of Mr. Thomas Marvel (missing-in-action in the classic 1933 film) and a covey of Keystone cops (most of whose blues match) led by Colonel Adye (David Schurmann) whose constant cigar and easy-going demeanour merely await “but just one more question” to stumble into a Columbo episode (where Peter Falk’s “smoke and mirrors” ruled the airwaves of mystery for years).
Happily, it falls to director Neil Munro to levitate the script from parchment to the boards and the Shaw’s most creative director has more than, er, risen to the task. To be sure, Munro’s been aided and abetted by a top-notch crew of dark-side confederates. Judith Bowden’s “Upstairs Downstairs” recreation of rural Iping (neighbourhood pub and Doctor’s house) in 1897 is a functional gem (right down to the splendid detail of the paint gun—a gag in its own right that is marshalled with hilarious dignity by Anthony Bekenn’s ever-prepared Fearenside).
Lighting designer Kevin Lamotte—in a devilish compact with master sorcerers Rob Brophy, Katy Berggren, literal “movers and shakers” Paul and Lain Bogle (all dressed up via Denis Pizzacalla)—convincingly manages Griffin’s missing body parts, bare-assed assaults and gruesome swan song with style and aplomb that brings cheers from the bleachers and evokes memories past of midway sleights-of-hand. Who could ask for anything more? Duh! The music! Allen Cole’s score, replete with organ grinder zest, a capella sanctity and bone-echoing mallets adds another lead to the cast.
The action is efficiency itself. With scrims flying up and down, the constabulary (notably Cameron MacDuffee, and Jeff Irving) and patrons of The Jolly Cricketers (including stoic Guy Bannerman, startled Micheal Querin, and nautically-steadfast Bernard Behrens) hoisting and manoeuvring the rolling-stock sets and props with the same gusto as their rubber batons and pints, the entire production zips along with the animated pace of Fantasia.
But beyond the visual feast smoulders the story’s subtext of selfishly-employed scientific invention, “you can never go back” relationships, and the unstoppable ability of society to create its own calamities by espousing tolerance for all while still practicing the black art of exclusion.
Once invisible, Griffin doesn’t dash off to the bordello for copious amounts of free sex, but stalks his one-time sweetheart Catherine Kemp (Jenny L. Wright, whose histrionics belie their source and peg the decibel metre too frequently) then plots the disposal of her husband David (a first-rate depiction by Jeff Meadows). But with the drama thus in play, both writer and director choose to plumb the yuks instead of the depths. With more shifts than an incumbent the week before election, the closing scenes can’t decide where to focus so fire off in all directions even as the hunt-and-chase unfolds.
Tellingly, Griffin—when on stage but totally invisible—is mic’d from afar: Too at odds with the conceit of “Where is he now?” when his voice is locked into the confines of an unmoving sound system—more magic, please!
The tragedy of getting what you wish for (simply by drinking copious amounts of flat Cranberry Cocktail, it seems), then being more miserable than before gets a nod but not the attention Wells tried to depict in his always straightforward prose: “I told no living soul, because I meant to flash my work upon the world with crushing effect,—to become famous at a blow,” says Jack Griffin in the novel. What raw ambition—even in its understatement.
Now, from American Idol (where pitch and diction never count) to the media-perceived laboratory of horrors somewhere in Iran, the notion of power-at-any-cost is equally apt today. More’s the pity that, in O’Brien’s hands, the infamous last words of The Invisible Man speak less of life and secrets lost than sequel in the offing. JWR