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A Dark Adapted Eye

Travels With My Aunt
Greene Piece: Despite talent to burn, ACT's adaptation of Graham Greene's "Travels With My Aunt" fell short.

Translating literary works from the page to the stage can prove problematic

By Kerry Reid

My theatrical wanderings for the past couple of months have taken me on an exploration of plays created without the hand of a playwright. At least not in the traditional sense.

In December, I was enchanted by two terrific productions that raised the art of theatrical narrative storytelling to new heights: Journey to the West, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman at Berkeley Rep, and The Confessions of Madame Psyche, a Word for Word presentation at The Magic Theatre as part of their MagicTOO series. Less successful was ACT's adaptation of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt, adapted and directed by Giles Havergal of the Citizens' Theatre of Glasgow.

So why is it that some shows created through adaptation can be so powerful, while others simply fail to fly? And why adapt non-theatrical works for the stage at all?

In the case of Word for Word, "adaptation" is really a misnomer. Under the joint artistic direction of Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, the company formed in 1993 to bring classic and contemporary works of literature to the stage without cutting or changing a word of the author's text. Harloe previously worked with Book-It in Seattle, which provided the model for Word for Word. "When I first saw Book-It, I was so impressed by what they did and so excited by the concept. When you perform a story, you really get into and underneath the author's particular language," she says. Word for Word's production of Madame Psyche, directed by Delia MacDougall, presented the first chapter of Dorothy Bryant's American Book Award­winning novel.

Paradoxically, the company's insistence on not cutting text seems to lend itself to a more collaborative mode of creation. Everyone in the production has input about how the narration is divided. "We usually do several read-throughs of the story; then we jam with it a bit, let voices pop in and out. It changes all the time. Madame Psyche changed nearly to the last minute. It's a very organic process, and I think it needs to be that way," Harloe says.

A high degree of collaboration also guides Zimmerman's work. She adapted Journey to the West from Anthony C. Yu's translation of the classic 16th-century Buddhist tale Hsi Yu Chi. Her work typically presents a great deal of physicality and stunningly original stagecraft. In Journey, a dizzying array of trapdoors, ladders and even cages that descended from the ceiling of the Zellerbach Playhouse came into play as the story of the monk Tripitaka's journey to India in search of Buddhist scriptures unfolded. In a sort of "Far Side" moment, at one point a door high up on the back wall opened to reveal a giant monster eyeball.

As for the creation of ACT's Travels With My Aunt, Havergal claims it was strictly a "scissors-and-paste job." Virtually every line in the play is from Greene's novel. The impressive cast includes Geoff Hoyle, Ken Ruta, Charles Dean and Bryan Close, all of whom play multiple roles--men, women and, in Close's case, an oversexed wolfhound. At the adaptation symposium, Havergal said, "You get to love a book, and you respect it so much, but finally the loyalty has to be to you and not to Graham Greene. The director's job is to make a text sing or work."

Unfortunately, that is exactly what Travels With My Aunt does not do. While the surface is delightful, and the actors are certainly marvelous at instantaneous transformations, I left the theater feeling as if I had eaten too many bonbons, and longing for more substance.

At ACT's recent symposium on the subject of adaptation, playwright Eric Ehn identified three forms of adaptation: cooperative adaptation, in which verbatim text is partnered with stagecraft (as in Madame Psyche and Travels With My Aunt); argumentative adaptation, where one sees a problem with the given text and wrestles with it, as does the Wooster Group; and translation, which Ehn defines as "taking something from its given home and giving it a new safety, making a new creature."

Another participant in the ACT symposium, playwright Robert O'Hara, is working on a play entitled Insurrection, based on the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831. He noted that he originally had wanted to adapt Toni Morrison's Beloved for the stage, but discovered that "Oprah Winfrey owns the rights to every black book ever written."

In his play, O'Hara imagines what would happen if he, a young black gay man from the 1990s, went back in time to the day before the Turner insurrection happened. "We know history begins and ends," O'Hara says. "What's in between is what we make up."

But what of those purists who maintain that novels are novels, plays are plays, and the historical record should take precedence over an artist's fancies? "All art is adaptive," Ehn answers. "All art adapts experience, especially theater, which is always in the moment. If you're honoring the dead, make sure to check the corpse in the coffin."

Adaptation Alerts

Word for Word will be presenting Langston Hughes' The Blues I'm Playing at the Working Women's Festival on March 12, 13, 21 and 22 at the 450 Geary Studio.

Sonoma State University is hosting a "Day with Dorothy Bryant" on Feb. 22. The morning will feature a reading of her work-in-progress, The Trial of Cornelia Connelly (based on the story of a 19th-century trial in England), followed by an afternoon presentation of Word for Word's Madame Psyche and an evening presentation of Dear Master.

Miracle Theatre Co. presents an ongoing series of adaptations on the third Tuesday of every month at The Marsh, 826-5750.

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From the February 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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