Complex and stylistically daring, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” remains among the most respected American artistic achievements of the 20th Century, and this production at the Court Theater in Chicago represents the work’s first stage adaptation. Reverently faithful to the novel in both narrated prose and plot, the adaptation captures the book’s relentless intelligence and sophisticated view of race and identity. But writer Oren Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen still have an way to go in exploring how to theatricalize the work as opposed to staging it.
There is plenty here that works. As the unnamed, first-person narrator who learns to embrace his self-described “invisibility,” actor Teagle F. Bougere possesses an easy eloquence (that, given the torrent of words, can’t be easy) and charisma, with a smile that can portray joy, optimism, puzzlement and anger discretely or simultaneously.
There are several visual flourishes that stick in the mind, some signaled very directly from the novel — for example, the myriad light bulbs overhanging the narrator’s secret retreat in the basement of a building reserved for white tenants. There are also expressionistic touches such as a sequence of moving doorways as he searches for work in New York or a hospital scene in which McElroen positions the protagonist leaning forward at the end of a rope as he deliriously listens to the objectifying dialogue of the white doctor and nurse.
But there are also sequences that don’t successfully visualize events from the narrator’s perspective. The very early scene in which the narrator, invited to accept a scholarship, is forced into a boxing ring with others and blindfolded becomes a literally choreographed sequence of slow-motion realism. As staged here, the scene comes across as a disturbing sample of the inhumane, but it loses the sense of palpable fear that comes from the narrator’s blindness in the situation.
Ellison infused African-American forms such as jazz into the very form of the novel. To translate his artistic innovation into a completely different medium seems a nearly inconceivable challenge, which is likely why Ellison refused adaptation requests to adapt it while he or his wife were still alive.
So this first staging should be considered an early part of a longer in-process experiment. It’s easy to admire its efforts and ideas: The terrific ensemble performances that capture Ellison’s unblinking view of self-interested people, both white and black; the intriguing but elusive use of characters who peak around corners to watch the “invisible man” in his lair; the use of projected images to get inside the narrator’s state of mind.
But in its current form the piece struggles to trace the narrator’s moments of revelation, and it becomes plodding once the narrator gets involved with the Communist-like “Brotherhood.” Above all, the show never manages to arrive at a guiding theatrical metaphor for the character’s conceptual invisibility.