Review: Vibrant Adaptation of THE LATHE OF HEAVEN at Spooky Action

By: Feb. 20, 2018
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Review: Vibrant Adaptation of THE LATHE OF HEAVEN at Spooky Action

Of her dozens of books over a long career, just one title by the esteemed science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin has been adapted a couple of times -- her 1971 "The Lathe of Heaven," the futuristic story about the power of dreams.

It's sad that the author died last month at 88 and is unable to see the vibrant adaptation of it at Spooky Action Theater.

Artistic director Richard Henrich got permission from the author to adapt it about the time he was starting the plucky D.C. company more than a decade ago.

"At that point we did not have the experience or the resources to really do it justice," Heinrich said. But two years ago, he found just the right person to pull it off - Natsu Onoda Power - an associate professor in the Georgetown's theater and performance studies program who has gained attention for vibrant, multimedia approaches to her material.

After a preview weekend last month in Georgetown, her adaptation of "The Lathe of Heaven" moved to Spooky Action's digs in the basement of the Universalist National Memorial Church with a seamless cast of both seasoned professionals and talented Georgetown students.

It's the story of a troubled young man named George Orr (whose name sounds so much like George Orwell). In an urban setting of "2002 - far, far in the future" he seeks help for having a series of dreams that don't so much predict the future as determine it.

Matthew Marcus plays Orr as a nervous type; he goes to see a doctor, grandly portrayed by Matthew Vary, who has a comic approach - and look - of Zach Galifianakis, flanked by nurses who act more like backup singers (Vanessa Chapoy, Michael Farrell, Kate Gina, Maddy Rice).

A lawyer skeptically takes up George's case (the very good Erica Chamblee, who was just in Spooky Action's "I Killed My Mother") and there is a love interest - or at least George dreams one up.

As good as everyone is, it's almost overshadowed by the exciting stagecraft. On a stage whose rolling shelves of white bankers' boxes are used as interchangeable settings as well as a screen for the video projections, there is room for live projected collage storytelling.

All of this could be done in a film, of course, but it's much more immediate to have the cast (that also includes Jonathan Compo and Adrian Jesus Iglesias step in as artist/puppetmasters, who put together the visuals on a table, which is then captured by small video cameras and projected on the boxes. There are puppets, too, and while the first set are very much like the "Avenue Q" type puppets recently in vogue, eventually there are carved blue statues that are the aliens or new humans.

You'd have to think that Le Guin would heartily approve of the creative, dynamic and utterly entertaining approach to the book. At the same time it's a loose enough adaptation to accommodate an original song by one of the cast members, Maddy Rice, about the town where it is set, Portland, Ore.

The adaptation, direction and set design by Power (and projections by Danny Carr) shows a singular vision in her reverent approach to Le Guin, whose death on the night of the first dress rehearsal added an extra touch of poignancy and urgency to the work. That it is one of the final works to be presented in the Women's Voices Theater Festival gives the laudable event an emphatic climax.

Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Michaela Farrel, Matthew Marcus, Matthew Valky in "The Lathe of Heaven." Photo by Melissa Blackall.

"The Lathe of Heaven" continues through March 11 at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th St NW. For tickets call 202-248-0301 or go online.


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