The Time Machine
Ron Litman stars in Scena Theatre’s The Time Machine; Credit: Jae Yi Photography

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H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine might not be the first story about time travel by technological means, but it’s undoubtedly the most influential. Over the past century it has been adapted for various media, and inspired numerous sequels, both authorized and unauthorized, by other authors. One of its latest iterations is a new stage adaptation from Scena Theatre, written by Robert McNamara, who directs, and Ron Litman, who stars.

The eponymous time machine, designed by Carl Gudenius and Michael C. Stepowany, sits on a riser. Its console is encased in red paneling mounted on brass piping. Behind it sits a large chair with red upholstery, its arms and legs painted gold, surrounded by an art moderne clock face. At the show’s opening, Litman’s Time Traveller (as the unnamed protagonist is referred to in Wells’ story; in the program he is listed only as “The Professor”) is seated in his vessel wearing a tattered shirt and aviator goggles. The machine comes to a sudden stop, and the traveler collapses.

The story’s starting point shifts from Well’s Victorian London to 1919 New York. The background image is of Times Square, an uncommented upon visual pun. As the traveller gets back on his feet he goes to the coat rack and, as he changes into a clean shirt and tweed jacket, explains that he expects no interruptions from his guests as he describes just when he’s been.

Horrified by the recently concluded Great War, he was driven to consider the theories of the great physicists of his era with hopes of escaping to a more civilized future—in the process name-dropping Wells’ earlier short story “The Chronic Argonauts.” With this adaptation set in our past, we get the Professor’s experience of the next century in Times Square: His first stop allows him to witness soup lines of the Great Depression. Another jump and he is in 1945, where there is a mass celebration—Litman recreates the iconic Alfred Eisenstadt photograph of the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day, but realizes it’s a response to an even greater World War. He learns of greater atrocities and of nuclear bombs. He skips to 1969, where he is confused by anti-war protests, clouds of marijuana smoke, and the burning of draft cards and bras, then on to Sept. 11, 2001.

After seeing the shape of things to come, he resolves to go even further into the future where the remainder of the show closely follows the events of the novella. In the year 802,701, humanity has diverged into two distinct species: The diminutive, passive, and intellectually incurious Eloi (whom he likens to elegant dolls), and the subterranean tool-using and cruel Morlocks. (The idea of two species of humans is not so strange by today’s science: Up until 12,000 years ago, there had been more than one human species living on this planet.)

As with the book, the traveler works through one hypothesis after another as to how this came to be humanity’s fate, eventually settling on the idea that the Eloi are descended from a pampered upper class that long ago ceased to engage in either physical or intellectual work. The Morlocks, he believes, are descended from the servants who did all the labor. (Wells’ own working-class upbringing often had him living with his family in servants’ quarters). However, as the first tentative leaps into the future show, many unexpected events can happen in a century and greater schisms and cataclysms can occur over  800,000 years.

The time traveller, like the young H.G. Wells of 1895, anticipated neither World War I (though he lived to see the end of World War II), climate change, nor global pandemics. We are still welcome to entertain their own theories.

Litman is masterfully expressive. His vocal inflections, face, and articulate hands are perfect storytelling instruments as his traveler describes both the wonders and horrors of the far future, and makes good use of his mime skills as he explores humanity’s ruins and interacts with our descendants.

While the focus is on Litman’s performance, Tom Pile’s contributions are substantial in his role as video artist and composer. For traveling there is an animation that recalls Doctor Who’s time vortex (even if the clocks are a bit much). For scenes set in the far future, Pile projects decayed cityscapes of a dying Earth, and a rendering of Weena, the Eloi woman the hero befriends. Most interesting are the documentary sources selected for the first hundred years of the journey: Not just Times Square in different eras, but pseudoscientific racial theories that some of Wells’ (and the professor’s) contemporaries entertained that became part of Nazi ideology. One image even references Kanye West’s turn toward antisemitic conspiracy theories that have led to his embrace by some White nationalists. Together it suggests that genocide and eugenics may have played roles in shaping Well’s 802,701. Pile’s ambient and symphonic prog-rock stylings are the perfect music for this production, evoking the strange without upstaging the actor. 

The play is fast-paced (clocking in at just under an hour) and Litman’s energy never wanes. With but a single actor and a stage manager running sound and projection cues, this is a solo piece ready for touring, much as McNamara’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Report to an Academy is now on the way to a festival in Nairobi, Kenya.

Scena Theatre’s The Time Machine, adapted from the H.G. Wells’ novella by Robert McNamara and Ron Litman and directed by Robert McNamara, runs through November 13 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. scenatheatre.org. $15–$35.