Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday Night in Park Slope: Piper Theatre presents "The Island of Doctor Moreau" outdoors at the Old Stone House in Washington Park

Tonight we were mesmerized by a stunning performance of an innovative, visceral, and commanding adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau conceived and executed by the amazing Piper Theatre outside the Old Stone House in Park Slope's Washington Park.
Frankly, a novel like Wells' Doctor Moreau is extremely difficult to adapt successfully to the stage. Its fast-moving plot probably works a lot better on the screen.
 Last season we saw a not entirely successfully outdoor production of an adaptation of Wells' War of the Worlds, which both tried to update the century-old fiction and follow too much of literally But Wells' material was handled much more astutely here.
Piper Theatre's highly stylized adaptation avoids both of those problems, freely turning what is both an early work of science fiction -- of the mad scientist/technology run amok variety -- and a sophisticated novel of ideas and passions -- into more a general "work of the theater" than a "play."
Indeed, the choreography involved in this production -- so expertly timed and astoundingly apt to the actions depicted --
made it all the more impressive when director and Piper Theatre artistic director John P. McEneny (Mollie Lief was assistant director on this play as well as the wonderful Xanadu) came on after the show and curtain call, on this, the last night of the troupe's public performances here, and mentioned that there had been only nine rehearsals. Wow, we thought, the cast is even more impressive than we thought.
The credits read only "devised and directed by the Piper Collaborative" and then list, in alphabetical order: Chris Cariker, Vasile Flutur, Zoë Frazer, Nicholas Guastella, Mollie Lief, Matthew Luceno, John P. McEneny, Aaron Novak, Lucas Syed, Chinaza Uche.

The story was narrated pretty much by the book's narrator, Pendrick, an upper-class shipwrecked scientist who, rescued by an alcoholic physician, Montgomery, comes upon the island of the title, where Dr. Moreau practices vivisection and creates horrific half-human, half-animal hybrids.
But at least three of the six performers took the role of Prendrick, passing it off expertly, as the character addresses the audience, using some of the Wells' narrative, modified and tightened.
The pivotal role of Stevenson, the weak but sympathetic doctor who brings Prendrick to Dr. Moreau's island, was played consistently by Chinaza Uche, who managed to create a coherent character.
Yet although Prendrick was played by several actors, including the wonderful actress Zoë Frazer, there was a consistent "voice" in his character as well as the narrative. And the handoffs between the actors were as close to seamless as possible in this kind of production.
We wish we had a more specific guide as to which actors played each parts -- the role of Dr. Moreau was played consistently, we think, by an actor who managed to be chilling, charismatic, and at least half-crazy.
And we think it was Lucas Syed who not only provided the crucial musical accompaniment but also offered narrative as a full member of the ensemble.
But what's most wonderful about this production is the shape-shifting and role-shifting, and the portrayal of the Beast Folk, from the most characterized (and human) one, Montgomery's half-man, half-bear servant M'ling, to the horrifying Leopard Man and other bizarre creations.
We hope this won't be the last performance of the Piper Theatre's Island of Doctor Moreau. A truly excellent theatrical work like this deserves a wider audience -- and more educated and informed praise than we can offer. We're very grateful we got to see it.

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