Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thoughts on Otherworld Theatre's "A Princess of Mars"

Disclaimer: Positron received press passes to see this production. We'd totally tell you if we didn't like it anyway, though. Fortunately, it's really good.

Otherworld Theatre has just launched its second run of A Princess of Mars, their stage adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 tale. Directed by Tiffany Keane Schaefer, adapted by Schaefer and Nick Izzo, the play is a rollicking adventure featuring inventive effects and stage combat.

Following the general outline of Burroughs' story—with some extremely effective changes that I'll get into below—A Princess of Mars is the story of John Carter of Virginia, a veteran of the Civil War mysteriously transported to Mars. In Burroughs' version of the red planet, it's a dying but habitable world populated by a wild assortment of alien cultures and creatures. Carter is quickly caught up in a variety of conflicts and escapades, eventually following in love with the titular damsel in distress.

Frank E. Schoonover's
1917 cover.
Burroughs' tales of "Barsoom", as the Martians name their planet, are violent and rather silly, plagued by racism and sexism that are absolutely wince-inducing to read today—Burroughs, of course, is also the creator of such culturally-insensitive works as the Tarzan series. After acknowledging their faults, however, the Barsoom tales are also undeniably fun—exuberant, free-wheeling, and almost childishly imaginative and melodramatic, with Carter a kind of superman thrown up against bizarre monstrosities and enemies. Barsoom has also had an immense impact on science fiction and fantasy: as an important ingredient in "sword & sorcery" and "science fantasy" genre development, and as a direct influence on writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and countless others.

But that's Burroughs, and, while this play is true to the broad outline of his work, it's very much its own creature.

Otherworld's production is, without reservation, a delight. I hadn't made it to any of their productions before—after seeing the House Theatre's production of Diamond Dogs, I'm belatedly kicking myself for not seeking out more of the SF/F performance art in Chicago—so I really wasn't sure what was in store. A Princess of Mars exceeded all my expectations: entertaining through and through, with a memorable cast, great costumes, tech, and stage combat, and a really delightful script.

I'd never have thought to put Burroughs and Shakespeare in the same sentence, but, by stripping the story down to its bones, rearranging them a bit, and then building it back up with solid characters and dialog, Izzo and Schaefer's adaptation reminded me of nothing so much as productions of Macbeth or Julius Caesar that don't take themselves too seriously—action blockbusters on stage, not afraid to rely on the plot itself for impact. Otherworld's A Princess of Mars highlights some of the juicier bits of the original story—old grudges, secret parentage, high-stakes combat—while completely reworking the basic thrust of the plot to make it more compelling: their princess is no damsel in distress, passively waiting to be rescued, but instead the primary agent in a plan to save both her nation and all of Barsoom.

John Carter (Soward) and
Tal Haljus (Bottero)
photos by assistant director Grace Gimpel
One thing I certainly didn't expect out of a stage production of A Princess of Mars was how often the audience was rocked with laughter. The dialog has a snappy, Whedon-esque energy, comfortable with quick tonal shifts—bits of melodramatic exposition get straightforward delivery, interspersed with laugh-inducing "reaction shots"; nor does the script shy away from embracing some of its inherent silliness. The Tharks—the "savage green race", probably fictional ancestors to Star Trek's Klingons—compose a good half of the cast, and the excellent maskwork and costumes are backed up with bombastic, broad characters. Mary-Kate Arnold's Dejah Thoris and Elliot Soward's John Carter are two of the most earnest characters on stage, which makes a good starting point as they interact with each other and the outlandish ensemble—by the time they're hitting "meet cute" territory, one's completely accepted the costumes and set, so a few brief rom-com moments can shine. The script also makes the "stranger in a strange land" trope (hey, +1 Martian lit points) a two-way street, wisely: instead of Earthman Carter just reacting to Martian weirdness, the play lets Carter & the Barsoomians' mutual misunderstandings develop for comic and world-building effect.

One of the smartest things this script does is de-center John Carter a good bit. Where Burroughs' Carter is sort of a giant wooden figure surrounded by lesser cardboard ones, Otherworld's production makes him merely one important character among many, an outsider pulled into a world with many actors and agendas. This gives the play space to develop a large cast very well, with the villainous Tal Haljus (Bennet Bottero) and Sab Than (Michael Bullaro) particularly notable for chewing the scenery with aplomb; Bullaro seemed like he was channeling the entire cast of The Princess Bride's villains at once.

Now that I think of it, The Princess Bride is actually a remarkably close fit to A Princess of Mars' tenor and spirit.

Sola (Rigby), Tars Tarkas (Larson),
and Sarkoja (MacDougald)
photos by assistant director Grace Gimpel
Furthermore, Otherworld's adaptation does a laudable job of addressing some of the more problematic aspects of Burroughs, particularly the way he reduced his female characters to objects when not ignoring them completely. Here, Arnold's Dejah Thoris is in many ways the real protagonist: it's her actions that bring Carter to Barsoom, and, rather than being a mere damsel in distress, she's an active figure, enlisting Carter in her plans. Sola (Julia Rigby) and Sarkoja (Elizabeth MacDougald) are not only given far more agency and dialog than in the original: they very much dominate their time on stage, albeit in very different ways.

Otherworld's A Princess of Mars ducks Burroughs' racism simply by not writing it in, but I did appreciate the way that Barsoomian racial tension and superiority narratives are quietly indicated as problematic. In this version, Carter is also changed from a loyal Confederate solider to a deserter; while they don't go overboard with the virtue-signalling, having him confess his deep discomfort with fighting on behalf of a slave-holding state definitely makes him a more palatable "good guy" to the modern audience, and also fits in nicely with the arc of "finding something worth fighting for".

Dejah Thoris (Arnold) and Sab Than (Bullaro)
in a scene that evoked another famous mawage.
photos by assistant director Grace Gimpel
All these slight changes, updates, and reappropriations are very welcome—I can't help thinking of the recent spate of SFF re-interrogations of Lovecraft's problems: LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom and Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, to name two recent book discussions.

In addition to its script and acting strengths, this was just a delightful play to watch. I was extremely curious to see how they pulled of the Tharks, and the fairly simple green suits and excellent masks worked very well; fantastic costumes and makeup for both Red and Green Martians, and the mostly-empty set was made wonderfully atmospheric with lighting and sound. Elaborate stage combat is probably one of the main things you'll walk away remembering, with fairly involved fight scenes interspersed throughout.

So much fun! Go see this. It's playing through April 1st. You can find out more on Otherworld's site, and you may be able to find ticket deals on Goldstar. You can also keep up with Otherworld on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

1 comment:

  1. I have never seen a production at Otherworld that was not creative, memorable, well acted and directed. Can't wait to see this one this weekend.