We attempt to organize the world around us through binary distinctions: good and evil, pain and pleasure, animal and human. However, these lines between such “opposites” are more porous than you might imagine. H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, probes many of these dichotomies on a philosophical level, exploring the humanity in monsters and monstrosity of humans. The theme seems quite timely: from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight to Frank Darabont’s Walking Dead, the idea of escaping the confines of bestiality has infiltrated popular culture today. John P. McEneny, Artistic Director at Piper Theatre Productions (based in Brooklyn, New York) takes this disruptive provocation one step further by adapting Wells’ story for the stage in a butoh-inspired production that undermines additional boundaries, such as that between dance and theatre. The performance likewise redefines ensemble acting by challenging the notion of distinct roles: every one of the five exceptionally talented actors takes on the main role, alternating periodically in this brilliantly choreographed piece which holds true to the science fiction classic.
In the story, Edward Prendick, after being rescued from a shipwreck, is brought to an island where the mysterious Doctor Moreau conducts his experiments. Using H.G. Wells own theory about animal plasticity, the doctor performs vivisection on creatures, merging them together to create humanoid beasts. The results are frighteningly tragic.
The actors cleverly play with this interrupted evolution and devolution. Though the stage is remarkably sparse, the company manages to put together captivating stage pictures, with the aid of an original score by Lucas Syed. The only props are five briefcases, which are used to create an ever-changing set of bridges, ships and other enclosures, and bandages, tightly wrapped around the actors’ appendages, concealing wounds, binding the players together, only to be unraveled as the plot tumbles forth. The transitions are seamless. With a breath in unison, two actors go back to back, then turn and undergo a metamorphosis with a unified sigh. Such expertly tight timing makes the show breathtaking to watch, as the actors literally transform from one creature into another. Indeed, I found myself gasping along with the actors during many of these transformations.
This utterly exhilarating performance raises questions, as the original text did, about the hubris of science, the violence of law, and the god-like power scientists exert. The stagecraft of the directors and the energy of the remarkable ensemble renders this tale even more dynamic and engaging. The use of butoh, a Japanese style of dance that was created after World War II, provides a medium through which the actors can experiment with this power in front of the audience.
The bottom line: Showcased first in Manhattan at 59E59 Theater’s East to Edinburgh and previewed at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, the production is on the road to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it will be performed from August 12-25. The production stars Michael Buffer, Christopher C. Cariker, Vasile Flutur, Eiko Kawashima, and Aaron Novak. John McEneny, along with associate Mollie Lief Abramson, served as director. I highly recommend this production for a politically provocative and artistically innovative piece of theatre. Piper’s rendition may be on the fringe, but it is an edge more artists should reach toward.