Just in time for Halloween, the Aquila Theater Company is distilling H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” to its horrible essence. The sci-fi classic always carried the sinister warning that social “invisibility” will result in disaster, and this loose adaptation brings that subtext to the fore. No longer the story of a gifted scientist who makes himself disappear, it is now the study of a man who has invisibility thrust upon him by an unfeeling doctor. Told mostly through dance, the patient’s descent into violence and loneliness creates a truly harrowing mood.
The biggest jolts come first, when we discover the hospital where Dr. Kemp (Anthony Cochrane) is successfully experimenting with making the Stranger (Daniel Charon) invisible. Kemp’s co-workers object, but the protests are necessarily ineffective. With their synchronized stabs of movement — slicing hands, legs that bolt suddenly forward — the generic cluster of doctors and nurses suggest how social conformity is just as effective as a scientific potion at erasing an identity.
The ensemble’s choreography makes an eerie parallel with Charon’s. His body gracefully expresses anguish, but since his face is covered with gauze, his emotions are anonymous. The fluid evocations of despair — which have Charon performing near-acrobatic bends and leaps — are unsettling because they seem so deeply felt, yet they emanate from a character who has been denied identifying features.
In the best way, the show’s first third is almost unbearable, reaching beneath language to create these primal images of isolation. Cochrane’s original music bolsters the effect. Radio announcers speak backward, telephones ring in a screeching pitch, cellos burst through walls of electronic beats: These sounds thrust us into a disorienting world by distorting everything that seems real.
Sadly, the appearance of a plot dilutes the impact of the movement and design. After a salvo of gripping images, the show turns to a more conventional (and thus unsurprising) form of storytelling. There’s little dialogue, but what we get reveals an obvious pattern: Various hospital staff worry about the Stranger, go to check on him and endure a frightening encounter.
There’s an Off Broadway epidemic of this type of unsatisfying dramaturgy, which takes all its characters on variations of the same journey, thus allowing auds to quickly predict how events will unfold. In the case of “The Invisible Man,” we’re invited to impatiently count down the number of nurses who still haven’t met their fate, putting us two steps ahead of everything that happens.
The production would be far more engaging if it could jettison its schematic structure and focus instead on sinister atmosphere. Left to their own devices, auds surely could make the pieces coalesce into a memorable picture of invisibility made deadly.