You Can't See Me

 

The Invisible Man

by H.G. Wells, directed by Arthur Yorinks

presented by The Yorinks Theater Group at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, New York City, October 8, 9, 15, 16, 2009

Depicting tales of suffering, racism, nationalism, abuse or poverty is not a new idea. Yet there is still a large spectrum to be explored within seemingly over-used themes. The challenge of the artist is to find the appropriate medium through which to discover new questions to old problems. Arthur Yorinks found that outlet. With only a handful of shows to its credit, The Invisible Man echoed much of the perspectives and methods of the 1960s and ‘70s political theater that challenged status quo thinking and shattered the boundaries between artists and audiences. With a comprehensive understanding of homelessness and the unspoken stories of defenselessness and isolation, The Invisible Man invited the audience into a concealed world, often conflating distinctions between the visible and invisible.

The Yorinks Theater Group is a company based on creating “a new theater of sound.” For this production, director and writer Arthur Yorinks used The Jerome L. Greene Space (a performance space normally dedicated to radio shows, political excursions and musical performances) to his full advantage to produce a rare look into poverty, disillusionment, and madness through a multi-media landscape.

The scene: A lonely twin size bed sits center stage with a blank movie screen behind it. To the right stands an impressive black piano. Behind the audience there stands a radio station with a table filled with headphones and microphones. As the audience finds their seats, sounds of traffic and cars honking play on the stereo. In time, the viewer will realize that the space’s appearance still conceals many elements about the play. During the show’s introduction, conversation arises from the table with radio equipment to blend with the sounds of passing traffic. The piano in the front now hosts a musician (Michael Riesman) who will play an improvised score that lasts the length of the play. The movie screen features torrent snow and wind. The unseen “speakers” (the actors actually holding the conversation were physically located in the back of the audience) set the scene and the circumstances of the characters—we are evidently in a homeless shelter. The intensity of the sound system makes the audience feel as if they are eavesdropping on a private but lively conversation between four men and two women. Between the traffic noises, the animated discussions, and the piano music, the room fills increasingly with noise. Suddenly a tall, heavily bandaged man slowly enters center-stage, only to sit on his small cot, attempt to sleep, mumble to himself, and then stare at the audience.

The arrangement of the Greene Space was intimate enough so that the characters felt as if they were one with the audience (or that the audience was one with them)— the spectators were part of the performance. Wherever the action of the play happened, the viewers were there too.

A little something about H.G. Wells’s story of The Invisible Man: A science fiction novel of the late 1800s, the original story discusses morality, power and accountability through the story of a scientist, Griffin, desiring to be invisible. Griffin revels in his genius and proceeds to “test his limits” throughout the story. After getting caught experimenting on a neighbor’s cat, Griffin uses the formula on himself to hide from the landlord. To conceal his work, the scientist burns down the house and flees to a shabby, local inn. Later, the inn’s residents begin to lose their property. Confronting Griffin, they come to realize that he is insane and disturbed as he rants about his new found power of invisibility. In the end, Griffin is provoked to become invisible in order to harm his transgressors, becoming visible one last time after being attacked and murdered by locals. The Griffin in Wells’s story wanted power and tried to establish his dominance; Yorinks’s Griffin wants power too, but for a completely different reason. Thus, the storylines between the two versions of The Invisible Man, although similar in many ways, offer contrary settings that result in the delivery of very different messages.

As indications of a conscientious story line, screenplay, and directing, the actors used the entire space to involve the audience and challenge it to fully react to the play’s themes and subtexts. By forcing proximity to the action, and through manipulation of audio and visuals (conceptualized by Mark Stanley), Yorinks increased the viewer’s anxiety by making the spectator feel insecure and annoyed, as if we too were all complaining residents of the shelter. From the outset, The Invisible Man challenged audience members to confront any unsettled feelings and any instant biases toward the mentally ill and homeless. (“Why can’t those guys shut up?” “Should I be wary of this bandaged guy upfront?” “Is this guy planning on getting up anytime soon?” “Why is everyone ignoring him?” “Then again, who would want to talk to him?”)

Far too many times theater is a distant feature where nothing feels natural and the actors act like they are acting. Being a part of The Invisible Man’s drama—albeit as a passive participant—removes any barrier between the audience and performance and helps the audience get to know the characters and become comfortable with the shelter. The story unfolds as four men (voiced convincingly by Teagle F. Bougere, Arthur French, Dion Graham and Steven Rattazzi) in the back of the room complain about the shelter and its lack of personal space and hot water, and exchange personal histories and thoughts on the future. There are also two women present (Nikki Hislop and Karen Kandel): one manages the shelter and tends to the residents’ needs and the other is a research assistant from Columbia University studying religion. The disembodied voices are loud, boisterous and disruptive. The image my mind conjured while they carried on was that of the raucous black crows from the Disney cartoon Dumbo—these characters are so expressive their presence consumes the entire space, all while remaining unseen.

As the group converses, they notice an elderly man covered in bandages enter from the other side of the shelter. This is the invisible man, played impeccably by Rocco Sisto. The group later discovers that the man was recently in a fire. As the group of voices wrestles with how to approach the man they have taken to calling Bandages, a chemist, it turns out, whose real name is Griffin, they question his stability and wonder about the function of the brown bottles surrounding his cot. On occasion, they listen in on Bandages’ mumbling, hoping to learn about his recent accident. The chattering group senses he may be in need of some company.

All of the actors seamlessly carried the story, working within and sometimes piercing through the background sound and visual effects. Featured as the “voices” in the backstage, the actors were bold and lush in their presence and tone as New York City common folk, laughing and debriefing from their stressful days. Their complex emotions of desperation and hope through their textured performances felt very reminiscent of old fashioned storytellers on public radio.

The visuals of the space also added another dimension to the enigma that is Griffin, and the plight of the shelter’s residents. A number of scenes on the screen above the stage, for example, showed a burning candle alongside words or phrases like “irresistible,” “flame,” and “I was gone.” The visuals worked to develop the story—they also laid an ominous and disturbing undertone.

Yet sometimes the production hazarded sensory overload; it was sometimes difficult to follow the characters because everything was over stimulated. Simultaneously bombarded from ahead and behind by noise, and visuals and action all around, I, for one, felt a great sense of relief when all voices, music and visuals faded out so that only the character of Griffin could be heard. Confusingly, all of this stimulation heightened when the story deepened, that is, when we began to learn more about Griffin and his descent into madness. Why would the lead character’s story be obscured from the audience? The production, after all, made great strides to personalize the setting, the characters, and the overall narratives. For this reason, while the direction was generally effective in the use of unseen voices, the piano, a movie screen and a live actor, more simplicity now and again would have moved the story along with greater ease and could have deepened the audience’s experience with the characters. The actors were strong enough to carry the storyline over the sounds and visuals, but it was only at times when everything was silent that the life of the story and the talent of the actors were able to breathe and develop. That an occasional barrier was created between the invisible man and the public seemed almost counterintuitive to the show’s premise.

As for the invisible man, apparently, being invisible actually is not the worst thing to happen to a person. Yes, Griffin can be more complex than gloomy and disturbing. The figure sitting on the cot alternates between demonstrating his sympathy for others and slighting those whom he finds exasperating. Griffin is also very aware of how to use his identity against others. In one scene, for example, he berates the men in the back and declares their dreams futile and inconsequential. Just as much as the men’s chatter cannot be ignored, neither can Griffin’s sullen mood. Griffin is clearly hiding something, warning others not to disturb the monster within. Remnants of his last beastly metamorphosis are made apparent by bandaged hands, the medicine bottles scattered around his cot, and notes of scientific formulas spilling from his briefcase.

Rocco Sisto, as Griffin, deftly played a weak, morose figure whose story many would prefer to never know. Nevertheless, his was a story spoken through an actor so naturally that it appeared Sisto was more than playing Griffin, he was Griffin. In his entrance, Sisto was silent but had a look of resignation as he sat staring into space toward the audience, drawing their attention and sympathy. Somehow Sisto honored Griffin’s uncomfortable circumstances, as if he were pulling from his own deep reservoir of emotions.

Amidst bouts of insanity, Griffin reveals himself to be a man attempting to retain his sense of self-worth through a metabolic change; his obsession with biochemistry and his desire to be invisible introduces an existentialist thread into the storyline, thereby forcing all characters (including the audience) to come to grips with their own visibility—or lack thereof. In some moments, Griffin’s plan—to become invisible by way of chemical application—seems understandable. His angry and radical response to society’s rejection of his presence is, for him, a necessary means of self preservation.

Susan Sontag claimed that to become socially invisible dually affects the visible and the unnoticed: Out of fear of association, the visible become incapable of seeing outcasts as completely human. That is, it is easier to demean a person as estranged or as a monster than to recognize a common potential for depravity or vulnerability within all humans. The “monster,” however, internalizes this separation and finds a way to psychologically manage or adapt to his “social condition,” or rejects outright public opinion and the social constraints. In The Invisible Man, Griffin, as the monster, embodies both personas.

Under Yorinks’s direction, by the conclusion of the play Griffin does become something darker and more menacing. The ending leaves nothing resolved and offers no feeling of relief. Who is the monster? Who is the victim? In the final sequences of the play, Griffin declares with a great smile, “You can’t even see me. I am not even here. You stupid man.”

The Yorinks Theater Group knew that their work was greater than the sum of all of its parts. As a production, the experimentation with sound and space created a humbling experience that forced the audience to examine their split-second judgments of the “outcasts” of society. This much is evident in the irony of how the eponymous “invisible man,” Griffin, was the only actor who was actually seen. Yorinks obviously realizes that the problem of homelessness is a socio-economic issue, but at the same time he urges society to accept what is in front of them, literally. Changing someone’s thinking about an issue or a group of people often involves adjusting one’s imbalanced placement within the situation. With The Invisible Man, the audience was positioned within a chaotic story, and could not escape the same people whom they may regularly avoid on the streets. Yorinks did not let the audience sit at a comfortable distance while others remained in dire need, out of sight.

A piece of art especially resonates when it shifts worlds and perspectives. The question raised in The Invisible Man, “How do we open people’s eyes if they refuse to see us?” can actually be parlayed with another question, “What does it say about people who choose to ignore human suffering?” Some may disengage from the moral dilemma that the show presents. Others may remain ambiguous. But with a bold and deafening voice, Yorinks’s production asserts that “they” cannot and will not be ignored, and in this instance, denial becomes their greatest advantage.

Drill Sergeant. Loving. Intelligent. Goofy. Weird Faces.

If my former students could describe me in five words, one of those adjectives would be listed. My work involves and array of interests including political socialization, peace education, yoga studies and dance/choreography/photography. In the future, I hope to work for Sesame Street, Alvin Ailey and have my own organization for young, creative women to build their careers in dance and theater.