Professor Gloria Baxter's stage adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, an attempt to explore the possibilities of "total theater," was originally presented at the University of Memphis as part of its 1969 season, and anyone who has spent any time around the U of M's theater department knows that they haven't stopped talking about it since. The production attracted the attention of the Studio Arena in Buffalo, New York, and, as a result, the show was revived in 1970 at a festival there focusing on the American avant-garde. Thirty-two years after its nativity, Baxter's most storied show remains fresh as ever, and it's easy to see why the tongues have been wagging for so very long. It is a visually sumptuous and linguistically rich phantasmagoria of shifting shadows and bizarre creatures. In the end, however, some of the staging now seems more gimmicky than experimental. Place the emphasis on "seems."
While the concept of "total theater" was explored throughout the '60s and '70s by a number of artists, it appears that Baxter's interpretation stems directly from ideas presented in Peter Brook's seminal text, The Empty Space. In The Empty Space, Brook suggests that artists should stop making plays in the conventional sense and start planning what he termed "events." The idea was to create a charged atmosphere in which the audience senses they are involved in something special. For Something Wicked, a number of seats have been removed from the auditorium, allowing the players to take the action into all four corners of the playing space. It's not at all unusual for a freakishly costumed player to swing down from the catwalks in order to shine a flashlight in your eyes. Even during the three-hour show's two intermissions, circus performers appear in the lobby juggling, belly dancing, and banging on drums for the crowd's enjoyment. It is a bold, and boldly executed, choice that, due to the sterility of the environment, has diminishing returns.
Michael O'Nele's perfectly simple line drawing of a set is ideal for setting the show's sinister tone. It is easy to suspend our disbelief and accept the show's supernatural marvels within this context. When actors come out into the audience, however, and are framed only by the auditorium's polished wooden walls and glowing exit signs, it is not quite so easy to believe in miracles and monsters. Until the very end, when there is a slight twist on the roles of performer and observer, the fourth wall is solidly in place and only the plane of the proscenium is broken. There is no real awareness or recognition of the audience and the effect is this: Since the playing space has been significantly enlarged it takes the performers longer to move within it. Also, since the audience remains seated in a conventional way, facing the stage, it becomes a real strain at times to observe all the action, let alone soak in the texture provided by various circus performers. The performances during intermission are equally hampered by fluorescent lighting, bulletin boards, and the many other sanitary trappings of academia. These problems are intrinsic to the performance space and have very little to do with the fine work done by Baxter and her collaborators. Still, it would have been nice to see a more concentrated, time-efficient version of this work that exists only within the magical confines of the stage. In order to fully achieve what they were going for, it would have been best to perform in a less conventional venue, though, nuts and bolts aside, it works well enough.
Bradbury's chilling fable, while perhaps a bit on the hokey side, can still raise the gooseflesh. Something Wicked tells the story of a traveling carnival whose freaks and geeks take time out of their busy performance schedule to dabble in a little soul-stealing. U of M alums Bill Baker (of Our Own Voice Theatre Company) and Jerre Dye (who currently works and resides in San Francisco) turn in the evening's most memorable roles. As Mr. Halloway, a man cataloguing his losses as middle age slips away from him, Baker is often hypnotic. His vocal and physical control is well-suited to the rigors of narrative theater, and he succeeds in seamlessly making the transition from dialogue to prose where others lose a great deal of momentum. Dye is not as menacing as he could be as carnival owner Mr. Dark, but this has a lot to do with much of the show's choreography, which has him waving his hands around like a Deadhead and hissing asthmatically. When he is allowed just to act, he's the guy you don't want to run into in your worst nightmare.
The remainder of the student cast fares well in ensemble roles, though they too are limited by choreography that seems more silly than scary. Ashley Whitten's costumes, which look for all the world like they were plucked from an early-20th-century futurist ballet, only enhance the silliness. While the costumes are in many cases gorgeous, they do little to serve the creepy tone of the piece. Circus performers (at least before the advent of Cirque du Soleil) are exotic in a way that is removed from Whitten's designs, and in certain cases the costumes are obstacles the performers must overcome rather than tools they can use.
Though it may require a little extra patience, Something Wicked is, for all of its problems, something well worth looking into. When it is successful, it is a treat for the senses. When it fails, it is, at the very least, an interesting failure.
Through November 10th.