If ever a wanderer was in need of a search-and-rescue mission, it’s Lemuel Gulliver. The 1726 account of his “Travels” penned by Jonathan Swift has been co-opted by academics enthralled by the allegorical satiric thrusts at British statesman Robert Walpole and by undiscriminating children who know only Max Fleischer’s kitschy 1939 animated feature. Virtually forgotten is Swift’s mordantly cynical take on human foibles that’s as true and pertinent as ever — but a dazzlingly theatrical new adaptation by the Actors’ Gang restores the proper order of things.
Scribe Joshua Zeller distills the novel to manageable length without sacrificing any of the voyages or principal themes and permits just enough contemporary references to engage a modern aud without pulling the story out of the 18th century. Helmer P. Adam Walsh and a versatile troupe of seven employ a felicitous blend of mime, song, puppetry and slapstick to bring to life all four of the ship surgeon’s ports of call, each taking us deeper into Swift’s dark heart.
Possessing the kindly air and gravitas of the late Gregory Peck, whom actor Keythe Farley uncannily resembles, Gulliver is first shipwrecked in familiar Lilliput. Set designer Francois-Pierre Couture’s raggedy backcloth, doubling as silhouette screen, allows Farley to tower over the Lilliputians, clad in white and red jumpsuits, with long, pointy noses and speaking in Lollipop-Guild gravelly tones. Beyond the usual fun of having “Man-Mountain” frolic with his tiny playmates, the show takes the same wicked pleasure in Gulliver’s excretory and reproductive functions that Swift does. (Warning: This may look like a kids’ show, but consider it a hard PG-13 or a soft R.)
Size continues to matter among the giants of Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is portrayed by a GI Joe-sized mini-me. John Burton built him, Farley wields him and the little puppet is expressive enough to carry off the rest. (His dancing, or just wiping his brow, brings down the house.) These first two voyages, playing out as revue sketches, have little satire on their minds, as if lulling us into complacency for the one-two dramatic punches to follow.
Indeed, this version of “Travels” truly morphs into a play at port-of-call No. 3, Laputa, the land of math and science gone berserk, here plugged into our time by wrapping the Laputans’ heads in throbbing strands of strobe light as they chant binary code, with sound designer Jason Tuttle employing the THX note familiar to moviegoers as a chilling overture rattling the Ivy Substation bleachers.
Spirits brought low by the Laputans’ Howard Zinn-friendly, shadow-puppet History of the World from the Big Bang to Bad Bush, Gulliver winds up in the domain shared by the filthy, feral Yahoos (i.e., us) and the noble talking horses, the Houyhnhnms. The latter, played by barefoot actors in togas, pass upstage such that their shadows reveal their equine nature in one of Walsh’s simplest yet most thrilling uses of that backcloth.
Finally in his element in daily historical and philosophical gabfests with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver inadvertently reveals the slavery to which horses are bound in his native land, thus persuading his hosts that he’s really just another Yahoo. Farley, elsewhere our relatively passive surrogate, achieves his most sensitive acting in his banishment from Utopia and return to England, where both home and wife Mary fall short of the idealization that has animated him all along.
Couture’s always expressive lighting becomes particularly somber here with a couple of well-placed spots. It’s a tribute to Walsh and team that despite the show’s continual reliance on technical means, it never loses its two-planks-and-a-passion economy.
In his keenest departure from Swift, Zeller omits Gulliver’s railing against his species like Timon of Athens, and his mad self-identification with horses. To allow the man a safe haven from his memories, even in lunacy, would be too kind. He, and we, are left sitting in anguished contemplation of human savagery, astonished that the world suddenly seems so much bleaker than before we entered the pages of “Gulliver’s Travels.”