If Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" comes to any conclusions down there in his basement after a lifetime of confusion, disappointment and hurt, after a good long spin on the racially painted American carousel of the mid-20th century, he finally spits them out at the end. "America," says this Mr. Cellophane, this strangely heroic anti-hero, "is made up of many strands. I would recognize it and let it so remain."
Like so much in this singular, 600-page, 1952 novel — and now, at the Court Theatre in Chicago, a remarkable, 205-minute, must-see, three-act dramatic achievement adapted by the writer and filmmaker Oren Jacoby — that remark offers very good advice for anyone, say, staring with disbelief at the men who make up a presidential primary, or merely trying to deal with a neighbor of a diffrerent stripe.
Of course, you can also see the invisible man's position as cynical and self-protective, unsympathetic to the timeless truth that struggles are always necessary to effect change. But then the late Ellison's vision was as complex as his experience. Wisdom spouts from every funnel in a great novel in which one hopes this show, the first-ever authorized dramatization, will rekindle interest from New York and Hollywood. "It's impossible not to take advantage of the people," one of Ellison's creations remarks, clearly speaking for the author. "The trick is to take advantage of them in their own best interest."
Good luck finding a politican who'll admit that truth.
That rich socio-political landscape positively throbs from the Court Theatre stage in Christopher McElroen's unstinting and intensely crafted production, which sets apart the title role from an ensemble of actors playing those who enter his orbit, and that offers a veritable feast of visual pleasures. You are constantly encouraged to look into the shadows at the side of Troy Hourie's endlessly fascinating setting and discover who is watching whom. Along with tantalizing light and projections from John Culbert and Alex Koch that play out America's racial ferment — luminous intensity alternates with confounding shadows — McElroen's production has the benefit of a magificent central performance from Teagle F. Bougere that deftly captures the tonal complexity with which Ellison imbued his alter ego: a young black man who takes an epic, push-pull journey from college in Alabama to professional organizer in Harlem, and from idealistic surge to stoic retreat.
It's a hugely empathetic performance from an actor who clearly understands he's playing an African-American everyman, buffeted by forces, switching endlessly from positive to negative, without regard to the race of the influencer. Bougere shows us a man who finally learns he cannot control the acts of others, even as the lesson comes with great personal pain. Yet there's nothing showy or romantic about what Bougere is doing; his character is not an idealization but an ordinary, flawed man never far from retreat. Bougere reveals all that and more. It's a tonally adroit performance that one fiercely hopes will get its just development and desserts.
Jacoby's work is remarkably faithful to the source, which is no mean feat. The script needs a further edit and, frankly, a tad more independence from the novel. The third act is disproportionally long and, in both Act 2 and Act 3, we need a better sense of the Invisible Man being propelled back underground with a dramatic force that currently seems to dissipate just when the demands of any dramatization require it to intensify.
Some scenes don't yet work as they could: the surreal sequence following the explosion in the paint factory (where the Invisible Man finds himself splattered with white paint) does not make sense with the whole. And, yet more seriously, one of the key emotional moments in the piece, the death of a Harlem organizer named Tod Clifton, does not carry enough focus. Jacoby will need to take another hard look at what to streamline and leave out, while teasing out yet more of a dramatic throughline. But the hard work is already done. Jacoby is demonstrably unafraid of his unyielding source.
Court's ensemble cast has some similar gut-wrenching moments, many of which come from Kenn E. Head, whom McElroen deftly uses as a kind of moral conscience of the piece. Lance Stuart Baker offers a most compelling turn as a self-loathing young rich man whom the Invisble Man meets along the way; the aptly dangerous Julia Watt personifies a bevy of white, female, sexual temptations; and A.C. Smith rises up to play many of the black leaders whom our man, it turns out, cannot trust. Paul Oakley Stovall, Bill McGough, Tracey N. Bonner, Chris Boykin and Kimm Beavers all have excellent scenes, even though at times you wish that McElroen (a director of great imagination making an overdue Chicago debut) had just a few more actors at his disposal, allowing him to add spectacle and ensure race-specificity in a piece, frankly, that demands it.
Still, this is a remarkable piece of made-in-Chicago theater that deserves to attract national attention and will, for sure, thrill and inspire Ellison's fans, even as it slightly confounds those new to the novel. That dichotomy could and should be fixed by these capable creators. The theater is a distinct medium, and Ellison has a lot more to teach us all.
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or couttheatre.org.Copyright © 2015, RedEye