Staging a sweeping science-fiction action spectacle on a small stage and a limited budget poses challenges that most companies would prefer to leave unmet. But this Hardcover Theater adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” arrives following, in recent seasons, interpretations of literary works by Jules Verne, Jack London, and Nikolai Gogol. Latest page-to-stage conversion is satisfyingly pulpy and frothy, frenetic, more than a bit odd and unapologetically entertaining.
The action begins with a monologue by John Carter (Jami Rassmussen) in which he recounts fighting on the losing end of the Civil War and ending up with a fortune in worthless Confederate currency. He subsequently heads west in search of gold, ending up instead unaccountably transported to Mars, where snarling, violent, 15-foot-tall green aliens immediately attack him and compel him to fight for his life.
So clearly, what follows is not intended to be a nuanced character study. Instead this 90-minute show offers action, action, action, as Carter — a brutal Southern boy with ham-handed romantic instincts — finds himself a sort of superman in the light Martian gravity and becomes embroiled in wars, politics and romance among aliens both monstrous and humanoid.
Minutes after Rassmussen’s awestruck recounting of his character’s plight, we are compelled to relax and let the spectacle wash over us.
Director and adapter Steve Schroer tackles the production’s technical limitations with imaginative responses to Burroughs’s proto-sci-fi scenario.
The outsized green aliens are played by actors dressed in black, who snarl and roar their lines while brandishing hideous heads atop long poles. The actors playing red humanoid aliens, including love interest Dejah Thoris (Amber Swenson), wear simple red masks.
Rassmussen portrays Carter’s extraordinary powers with exaggerated physical movements and expressions of amazement at his own prowess. And a high-speed aircraft chase scene is played out with models that swoop to the fore of the stage and over the audience.
The plot essentially moves Carter from one improbable predicament to another, though Burroughs’ take on extraterrestrial life is interestingly Darwinian.
Hiram Titus’ background music lends the production a welcome gloss, and the nine-player cast works with unity amid increasing implausibility. The show is also funny, sometimes inadvertently so, though its chief distinction is framing a nearly century-old literary sensibility on an intimate stage without resorting to dramatic anachronism. Matters are played straight, in other words, with flair and energy.
While the romance element of the story is tepid at best, giant alien dogs and the horrible White Ape are offered by way of compensation. One awaits the inevitable sequel.