Adapted by Richard Henrich from a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin
Produced by Spooky Action Theater at the Black Box Theatre at Montgomery College
Directed by Richard Henrich
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Lathe of Heaven, Spooky Action’s adaptation of a 1971 novel by prolific science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, tells the story of a man whose dreams change history. Unfortunately, by the end of the first act you may be trying to dream that you went to a different play.
George Orr (Matthew McGloin) is a man whose dreams all come true. Unfortunately for George – and for all the inhabitants of Lathe of Heaven’s universe – George’s dreams are not of the “I want to be an astronaut” variety. They’re more like the kind of dreams you have when your Existential Topography final is due, and you realize you haven’t gone to class or even cracked a book all semester. Plus you’re not wearing any pants.
George’s dreams – “effective dreams”, as he calls them – have already changed the universe several times, including wiping out a lascivious aunt. Illegally, he is taking drugs to suppress the dreams. Caught, he is dragged before the ambitious Dr. Haber (Seth Alcorn), who immediately realizes the possibilities such dreaming, if controlled, can create. Using a combination of hypnosis and a sinister-looking machine called The Augmenter, Haber soon has George dreaming of solutions to overpopulation, war and racism. George’s solutions are less satisfactory, even, than Congress’: he dreams a plague which wipes out 6/7ths of the world’s population, and an alien invasion which temporarily binds all the nations of the world together.
Science fiction novels are generally loaded with exposition. They have to be since the author must describe not only the lives of the characters but the life of the characters’ universe. This novel has some special expository burdens, since the universe shifts every time George has a dream.
But exposition is deadly in theater. To interrupt a play while a character recites plot developments – usually to another character who should already know what’s happened – is to destroy the character’s, and the play’s, creditability. “It’s ninety degrees out, and it’s the middle of March,” Miss Crouch (Aniko Olah) blurts to Dr. Haber. “Thank heavens we have polarized glass and climate control!” Thank heavens, indeed.
Miss Crouch’s line brings another aspect of this damaged story to our attention: it is, in most of its assumptions, just plain wrong. Le Guin set her fictional universe in 2002. She imagined the world’s population would be seven billion by that point, which would make life so crowded that it would be impossible to walk down the street in Portland, Oregon without bumping into people. But the world is almost that populous now, without such a comically catastrophic effect. She imagined a world strangled with pollution; but the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the seventies largely took care of those problems, and we have different environmental concerns now. She predicted that there would be twelve nuclear powers (including “Egyptoisrael”), all at each other’s throats; there are considerably fewer. As disappointing as life is, it’s never as bad as it could be.
Predicting the future is tough business, and perhaps we should give Le Guin a pass. It’s harder to forgive Henrich, though, who in adapting the novel had a perfect opportunity to update it and, perhaps, cast it further into the future. But he seems a slave to the printed page, even when it hurts his cause: the Doctor is visited by an inspector from HEW, an Agency which was abolished in 1979. And what is that clunky-looking dial-up telephone doing in Orr’s apartment? Is Henrich trying to represent what Le Guin must have imagined what 2002 phones would look like, back in 1971? Is he making an ironic commentary on science fiction’s tendency to overlook the obvious? Who knows?
Le Guin was dead-on accurate in predicting one thing. Disturbed by Dr. Haber’s experiments, George immediately signs on lawyer Heather LeLache (Kisa Willis). Here, too, Le Guin uses (and Henrich faithfully reproduces) high-context, nonsense dialogue to establish LeLache’s character; prior to George’s appointment, she and another lawyer talk about her crushing somebody like a bug. Notwithstanding her bug-crushing tendencies, Ms. LeLache putzes around pretty ineffectually, and Dr. Haber continues gleefully to change the world, making himself more important with each iteration.
On and on it goes. The aliens eventually land, and although they do not fry us with their swizzle sticks they do the next worst thing: they sprout clichés throughout the rest of the play. Some of them are aphorisms of long standing but other clichés spring, fully-formed from Le Guin’s pen. I suppose Henrich couldn’t have done anything about that but he could have done something about the alien’s voice (all aliens played by James Gagne), which resembles, to an uncomfortable degree, that of Beldar Conehead, and the alien’s walk, which suggests that he should be carrying a Sousaphone.
Performing science fiction makes special effects a great temptation. Henrich yields to that temptation, to the play’s disadvantage. Although Will Wurzel’s sound design is superb, everything else comes off as cheesy and second-rate. In particular, the creaky approach of an enormous spaceship, obviously made of wood and paint, provoked a bark of surprised laughter from Saturday’s audience. But even the normal effects seem beyond Spooky Action’s capabilities. “I’ve never had this much food in my life,” George exclaims, looking into an obviously empty refrigerator.
The worst special effect, however, comes when Haber has George dream a solution to the problem of racism. The result is that everyone acquires the same color skin – a sort of battleship grey (apparently George never heard of anti-Semitism). Spooky Action chooses to represent this with bluish-tinted half-masks, which make the wearers look like hospital patients receiving oxygen. It takes several more minutes of relentless exposition – this time given by a tour guide, who just happens to be wandering near George – before we understand what has happened.
Le Guin doesn’t write much character into her characters, and neither Henrich nor the actors improve on her. McGloin as George is an innocent victim; Alcorn as Haber is arrogant; Willis as LeLache is strong and loyal (though, at least in the production I saw, a little nervous). Everyone seems content with their one-dimensional characterization
One-dimensional, cluttered with exposition, bedeviled with special effects which work badly or don’t work at all, Lathe of Heaven is a play which shouldn’t have been made, or should have been made very differently. A couple of months ago, Round House did an adaptation of Crime and Punishment – a much more complicated novel than Lathe of Heaven – successfully, by stripping away every part of the story that was not about the crime, and its punishment. A more judicious hand in adapting, and a greater willingness to, in Faulkner’s terms, “kill the darlings” might have served Henrich better here.
In turn, Spooky Action, which does not charge for admission but only asks its audiences to contribute an amount they consider fair, has earned its right to experiment. Man’s reach, as Robert Burns writes, should exceed his grasp, or else what’s a heaven for? Here, Henrich’s reach exceeds his grasp by about six feet, or the length of one lathe of heaven.
(Running time: approx 2:10) Lathe of Heaven continues Thursdays through Sundays until June 24 at the Black Box Theatre of Montgomery College, Corner of Philadelphia and Chicago Avenues, Takoma Park, MD. There is no charge for admission but theatergoers are asked to donate an amount they feel appropriate. Reservations may be had at 202.248.0647 or http://www.spookyaction.org/.