'Invisible Man' play explores isolation, lure of the unknown

H.G. Wells' tragic story of scientific hubris and human frailty came to life Wednesday evening in Aquila Theatre Company's adaptation of the 1897 novel "The Invisible Man" at the Lied Center. Wells' vision of a man whose leap into the scientific unknown isolates him from society and warps his character has been adapted by Peter Meineck to dramatize its themes of alienation and the consequences of scientific exploration.

Griffin (Louis Butelli) is a brilliant scientist fascinated by invisibility. His experiments finally render him invisible, but his gift becomes his curse. He swaths himself in bandages in order to interact with society, and his invisibility makes anything he wishes possible -- but enjoying it impossible.

Even before they understand he is invisible, people call Griffin a freak, a lunatic. Once they discover his secret, they loath his difference, fearing his power.

Power becomes Griffin's drug. Misunderstood and driven away from humanity, he becomes the monster people believe him to be as his pain compels him to dominate and control.

The play's highly choreographed movement accompanied by a musical score is particularly important in the first several minutes, when the actors perform without speaking. Griffin requests a room at an inn; the gossiping crowd is curious but not initially hostile. Then, as their curiosity turns to fear, they chase Griffin from the inn and hunt him across the countryside.

The elaborate pantomimed action is complemented by sound effects: knocking on doors, closing doors, dropping coins and breaking glass. The pantomime represents the ordinariness of the characters' lives; everything is always the same, thus no words are needed.

Communication in dialogue occurs at moments of revelation. The Invisible Man himself says very little while he can been "seen." He is a cipher, a mute figure of misery. Only after he sheds his clothes, becoming "invisible," do we clearly hear his voice -- projected through the speakers -- as he attempts to exercise his will over the people, moving them -- sometimes literally -- like an unseen puppet master.

The simple, moveable set pieces and three-sided frames that suggest doors and windows are shifted to indicate different buildings, rooms or perspectives. Set changes are part of the stylized movement of the action, and the actors twirl set pieces across the stage, reconfiguring them like giant Lego pieces.

The performers are physically graceful, and Butelli's physicality can be menacing or poignantly fragile. Often he is dressed in overcoat and hat, so that he can be seen; however, in a wonderful dance sequence, he is naked except for a flesh-colored leotard, moving through a masked crowd, interacting with them yet separate from them.

Symbolically invisible, he is denied the comfort of an umbrella in the rain or a blanket in the cold.

Yes, he does become "invisible." Here again, the actors' physical expertise is used. While Butelli speaks from backstage, the performers interacting with the "invisible man" onstage display convincing physical responses to their unseen companion, who shoves them, slaps them or otherwise manipulates their movement.

In addition, with sleight of hand, lighting, costuming and choreography, Griffin seems to disappear and reappear right in front of the audience in wonderful, magical, Houdini-like moments.

Like other literary scientists whose intellect overreaches their humanity, the Invisible Man is at the center of a cautionary tale about the lure of the unknown and our limited capacity to adapt to the implications of our discoveries.

-- Sarah Young is a lecturer in Kansas University's English department. She can be reached at youngsl@ku.edu.

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