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‘Invisible Man’ brings classic to stage at Huntington

Lead Teagle Bougere heads impressive cast in adaptation

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 13:02

Above the Huntington Theatre Company’s stage, an intricate placard reads “Go hold as ‘twere the mirror up to Nature.” Apart from referencing the literary classic “Hamlet,” this quote gives the packed audience a preview of what is to come from behind the curtain as they venture into the stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s classic “Invisible Man.”

Through his reworking of one of the most notable books to grace a high school English curriculum, Oren Jacoby actualizes the story of a young African−American man attending a 1930s southern black college who moves to Harlem for work.

The novel and stage show both tackle overarching issues of identity, race, dignity and finding one’s place in society during an age when civil rights were just beginning to be considered, let alone recognized universally.

“Invisible Man’s” three−act structure explores many levels of the protagonist’s journey. It begins with the iconic soliloquy in the Invisible Man’s cluttered basement home, lit by a ceiling entirely covered by glowing light bulbs.

This moment sets the tone for the entire play, with lead Teagle Bougere’s acting prowess, a stunning light design concept and hyper−close mirroring of the book that seems as if Jacoby copied and pasted portions into the script.

Seasoned Broadway actor Bougere offers great depth and range as the titular, nameless character — shifting from blazing political rage in one scene to the sorrow of a hurt, helpless soul in the next, then to a beaten−down acceptance that accompanies a neutral narrative quickly thereafter. At times, the social justice−heavy rants that speckle the script become too personal for him, making Bougere lose all sense of himself as an actor and lose himself in the message. Ironically, this absolute sense of presence and understanding of the words both detracts from and heightens his overall portrayal of a man on the edge.

Bougere is joined by an ensemble of other players who complement his character magnificently. Each of the nine other actors portrays multiple roles throughout the course of the show, adding distinct characterization and movement to each to easily distinguish them. It is through these colorful foils that the true transparency of the protagonist becomes clear.

The real magic of “Invisible Man” comes from its technical design. The use of light to create or change mood is a divisive tool used throughout. It complements the lead character from his opening monologue in which he declares, “I love light!” The use of various other forms and fixtures to illuminate the stage also creates a strong sense of place. Spotlights signify political protest, while fluorescent hanging bulbs tell the audience members that they have entered an office building.

These lights also blend with sound cues seamlessly and are used to signify changes or heightened stakes, but are much less obtrusive than the characteristic horns in the film “Inception” (2010) or the recent Broadway revival of Tennessee William’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

The last technical aspect of the show to stand out was its pivotal use of multimedia projections on various screens on the stage. The use of archival images set the scene by flashing what the titular character would be seeing through his own eyes. The images brought a new level to the narrative storytelling of theater that is often not seen.

That being said, there were parts of “Invisible Man” that would have been better left unseen. For instance, the first act was mostly comprised of monologue after monologue and it quickly became monotonous. The one real instance of action for an hour is a lumbering scene of bad stage combat between young black men brought to box — more like bludgeon — one another for the enjoyment of the older white aristocracy. After seeing almost nothing happen on the stage, many patrons got up and left during the first intermission — and for good reason.

However, they missed a great reprise in the second and third acts. With dynamic acting, beautiful costuming and strong special effects, there is something for almost everyone to enjoy at “Invisible Man.”

The standout aspect of the play is the strong social justice message it presents, as it shows the divisions in the movement for social equality and the ultimate trampling of a minority’s human dignity by the masses. Although the story may be half a century old, the slip of the tongue between calling for “social responsibility” and “social equality” that gets our protagonist reprimanded still rings loudly in political discourse today.

Sadly, the Huntington’s limited engagement of “Invisible Man” has ended. Don’t fret if you missed it, though, since with such a recognizable name, powerful story and unique vision, this production is nothing if not Broadway−bound.

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