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Hamlet and Invisible Man both begin with run-ins with things that go bump in the night. Hamlet gets its start with the ghost of a murdered king haunting the battlements of a Danish castle. Invisible Man opens with a monologue delivered in the dark, as a nameless protagonist (Teagle F. Bougere) recalls smacking into a man who didn’t see him, not because of dim lighting but because of the darkness of his own skin.
The success of each play hinges on whether these two phantasms have a good story to tell.
Hamlet is the more familiar tale, but Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, on which this new play is based, has steadily infiltrated high school reading lists, and is regarded as a seminal account of the African-American experience, its nonlinear narrative stretching from the Reconstruction to roughly the 1930s. Both works center on young men who find their university educations tragically interrupted. These young men are given to self-reflection and soliloquies, and spend their respective plays trying to sort out who’s a friend and who’s a foe.
The differences, then, for these two protagonists are that Invisible Man has no Horatio, and Hamlet has the far superior script.
Oren Jacoby’s adaptation of Ellison’s novel premiered earlier this year at Chicago’s Court Theatre. The Studio mounting is a co-production that goes on to Boston’s Huntington Theatre in January, a partnership that allowed the theaters to invest in complex, effective projections; convincing period costumes; and intricate sets. Each theater is responsible for its own electric bill, however. If you read Invisible Man, and remember just one thing about the book, it’s probably the fire-hazard field of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling of the protagonist’s apartment. They hover above the stage here, hundreds of them, oscillating from a dim glow to blinding burn. (Note to Studio: Please go easier on the fog machine—on press day, the pungent haze did make the light bulbs look cool, but had this critic hacking.)
Evocative imagery is the novel’s strength, but a challenge in any dramatic adaptation. Perhaps hoping to honor the density of Ellison’s text, Jacoby packs way too many overlapping narratives into the first act. In one scene, the onstage action includes a 19th century slave auction, a 20th century church service, and the protagonist’s high school graduation. That dissolves into a boxing match—with strippers—watched by men wearing top-hats and Abe Lincoln masks. Given the show’s high production values, these scenes make for stunning theater, but in a three-plus hour play, viewers need a visible storyline. We don’t get one until Act 2. Then, the protagonist, kicked out of college for taking a white donor to visit the wrong side of the tracks, sets out for New York. “That’s not a place, that’s a dream,” says a character who passes by onstage just long enough to deliver one of many memorable lines in a script that needs serious editing.
Still, Act 2 is both the most lucid and the most gripping. It’s a slice of vividly depicted Depression-era Harlem life; notable is a scene in a paint factory, where the protagonist tries to join a union to promote plant safety, only to have an explosion nearly blow his head off. If the action in Act 1 speeds by in a fast-forward blur, in Act 2 it’s perfectly paced, while Act 3 grinds to a slow-motion halt. The final hour of Invisible Man finds our protagonist recruited for a public speaking gig by Marxist activists, and the characters prattle on about the Brotherhood, the Rainbow of America’s Future, science, and the problem with personal responsibility. While it’s true figures of the Harlem Renaissance identified with elements of Marxism, the dialogue here echoes boring dystopian fiction.
Ten actors play more 25 named characters in Invisible Man, plus ensemble roles. They are a hardworking, sweaty mass of thespians whose efforts are diminished only by the uneven script, and the eight British actors across town doing Hamlet.
Yes, eight. Doing Hamlet. London’s Globe Theatre has made the Folger the first stop on its seven-city American tour. In this production that must make European austerity advocates proud, a cast of eight plays 27 characters, plus instruments. OK, so one of the instruments is a cowbell (as befits the Prince of Denmark), but Guildenstern is a damn good fiddler and Gertrude strums a mandolin. Costume changes are minimal but effective, and best described as mid-century Renaissance faire. The entire play is performed with the house lights up, so that the show has the feeling of a high-end, high-energy high school assembly. That’s an observation, not a criticism—this may be the most entertaining Hamlet you’ll ever see. The acting is a bit broad, but evenly so. Christopher Saul, as Polonius/the priest/a player/gravedigger, puts on a master class in character acting, and the younger cast members’ performances prove the Globe is still training players well.
Actually, great character acting overshadows the leads in both Hamlet and Invisible Man. In the latter, an actor of particular note is Brian Coats, whose many roles include a street vendor with the folksy candor of Bubbles from The Wire. But he’s one of far too many quick-hit characters. Shakespeare understood that onstage, even the characters providing comic relief have to move the plot forward. So the Watch in Much Ado accidentally foils Don Juan, Mistress Quickly delivers the mail, and the (players’) play is the thing that helps Hamlet and Horatio catch the conscience of the king.
Characters in a novel need not serve such utilitarian purposes. The challenge for Jacoby, and other playwrights who want to adapt epic novels, is not to fear making painful cuts. If the Globe can put on a credible Hamlet in two and a half hours, Ellison’s tome may yet make a decent drama. The actors are game; the design team has a vision. The problem is what Hamlet acknowledges when Polonius comes to him and asks, “What are you reading? What’s the matter?”
What’s the matter? Oh, his uncle killed his father, his mother’s sleeping with the murderer, and his girlfriend’s going mad. But that’s not what Hamlet says. What Hamlet says matters is this: “Words, words, words.”