Imaginative "Invisible Man" Interprets Ellison's Classic

It’s difficult for a stage adaptation of a celebrated novel to become considered a great work in its own right, but the new adaption of “Invisible Man” effectively transforms Ralph Ellison's classic novel into an even more meaningful production. "Invisible Man" premiered in Chicago as the first adaption of the novel, the script written by Oren Jacoby. Now playing at the Boston University Theater through February 3, Huntington Theatre's production comes to new life through the unforgettably poignant performances of the actors, expressive, subtle direction by Christopher McElroen, and inventive lighting design that changes setting as quickly as the nameless narrator jumps from one memory to the next.

The success of the performance rests on the shoulders of Teagle F. Bougere, who plays the nameless narrator through whose memories the audience comes to understand the universal yearning for escape from societal invisibility. Ellison’s novel is told from an unspecified basement in New York City; thus, Bougere is alone on stage for a good portion of the show and must carry much of the momentum as the story progresses. At times Bougere appears to be two different characters—he acts as both protagonist and antagonist of his own story and alternates between arm-waving passion and seated resignation, a man with too much to say and not enough people willing to listen.

One of the most moving parts of Bougere’s performance is when his character gives a eulogy at the funeral of his friend, Tod Clifton (De’Lon Grant). This hair-raising speech shows the invisible man’s transformation from a naïve child to a disillusioned adult all in the space of three and a half minutes. As Bougere repeatedly shouts, “He’s dead,” first with anger and then through tears, his story comes alive. Though in the novel this monologue comes across primarily as  a political statement, Bougere’s performance turns the speech into a personal one. Bougere makes the character of the narrator especially relatable by using his speech almost instrumentally, carrying both passion and helplessness in the inflections of his voice.

McElroen's subtle direction and tasteful use of silence is especially commendable; he is not afraid to allow emptiness to dominate a scene. The result is an unexpectedly lucid retelling of the narrator’s story. In one such silent scene, the battered and exhausted narrator allows Mary Rambo (Deidra LaWan Starnes) to wash the paint gently from his face with a wet cloth, a silent gesture that effectively defines Mary’s character.

Additionally, McElroen daringly shatters the fourth wall in this production. In one inventive moment, the narrator and Dr. Bledsoe (Johnny Lee Davenport) face off in Bledsoe’s office, but instead of facing each other, the narrator and Bledsoe sit side by side, facing the audience. This gives the audience the uncanny opportunity to be both characters in the scene, a blocking choice that opens the dialogue to the audience and asks the listeners to be more active participants in the conflict.

The successful translation from novel to stage is also a result of Mary Louise Geiger’s creative lighting. Though occasionally lacking subtlety in some of her choices, such as the flashing lights that seem to accompany most climactic scenes, Geiger still succeeds in taking the characters and audience through various settings according to the narrator's many memories. In the opening scene, a large panel of ceiling lights acts as the ceiling of the narrator’s basement room, from which the narrator claims to have hung 1,369 lights. However, as the scenes shifts from the countryside to an office building to the basement of a painting company, the panel is retracted above the stage and specific lights are lowered individually to complement the huge variety of settings.

By the end of the show, the stellar acting and innovative directing and lighting emphasizes the thesis of Ellison's novel; that the invisible man’s story could be true for anyone. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Bougere says before leaving the stage, a line that seems deserved after he has carefully taken the audience through his own memories. This production of Jacoby's adaption is a spectacular performance that goes beyond the pages of Ellison’s novel and creates new art. Indeed, the interpretation seems to lift the story beyond race and turn it into an open commentary on character, society, and the universality of an invisible man.

—Staff writer Se-Ho B. Kim can be reached at sehokim@college.harvard.edu.

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