Would a Ventriloquist's Dummy Crack Wise on Mars?

How to translate a century-old sci-fi novel to a 20-foot stage

The voice on the other side of the wall delivers a stark warning: "The terrors of your death shall haunt the slumbers of the red men for eons to come! Children will shudder in the night when their parents tell them of the awful vengeance of the green men!"

Given the far-flung rhetoric, I could be waiting outside an occupied bathroom stall before closing time at the C.C. Club. But instead it's a winter afternoon in a south Minneapolis church meeting room. Actors trickle in quietly for an audition, reading for the first time the characters they will have to portray on the fly: John Carter, a Civil War vet transported by mysterious means to the martial wilds of Mars; an old man, who has tended exotic alien machinery for 800 years; and Tal Hajus, a 15-foot-tall green Martian with extra arms and an insectoid face.

"Tomorrow the torture will commence," shouts a maniacal would-be cast member. "Tonight you are mine!"

Steve Schroer: On Mars, this is a Q-tip
David Fick
Steve Schroer: On Mars, this is a Q-tip

So much for opening with that well-rehearsed Neil Simon monologue. Such challenges, though, are nothing new for the actors who have appeared in Hardcover Theater's productions over the past few years. During that time, the scrappy company has tackled horror, Sherlock Holmes, erotica, and seafaring adventure, by such authors as Jack London, Jules Verne, Nikolai Gogol, and Louisa May Alcott. Their latest literary adaptation is Princess of Mars, the 1912 proto-sci-fi novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

A few days before, Hardcover artistic director Steve Schroer was exhibiting the signs of burnout that are endemic to the labor of bringing a new work into reality. The fact that rehearsals had yet to begin couldn't be taken as a good sign. Bearded and bespectacled, the fortysomething Schroer at first glance looks like the college professor he once thought of becoming.

"This is a very literary metropolis," he explains. "But the ecological niche isn't filled here with a company doing all adaptations." Schroer goes on to intellectualize his mission as "using language to establish things, to give the audience information."

Yet Hardcover has consistently mitigated its semi-academic conceptual origins by staging work that appeals not just to the seat of the intellect but to the lower regions as well. Jack London's The Sea Wolf delivered shivers, and the 2003 Fringe show The Good Parts featured salacious passages from great works.

"Some of it was quite pornographic," Schroer recalls with evident satisfaction.

Schroer grew up a self-described "film geek" in Colorado before going to college in Dallas and grad school at the University of Chicago. He was a literature major who dabbled in theater. A projected career in the academy gradually lost its luster.

"I just didn't see myself fitting into that culture," he says. "If I had to relate to books in a way to make it my career, it was going to destroy my love for books."

While a self-described "dropped-out grad student, hanging around campus," Schroer lobbied the University of Chicago administration to create a theater program. The project that emerged went on to produce as many as 40 shows a year. Meanwhile, Schroer also founded a small professional company and edited the literary magazine Chicago Review.

Upon moving to Minneapolis, though, he found the scene tough to break--contrary to its reputation. "It opened zero doors here for me professionally," he says of his Chicago background. He describes embarking on a spell as a stay-at-home dad. In 2002 he decided to give the theater another shot, and Hardcover was born with Scary Christmas--a considerably darker delicacy than the Dickens chestnut that showers cheer on yuletide audiences.

It was this show that attracted the attention of Hiram Titus, a local composer who has worked with companies including Children's Theatre Company, the Guthrie, and the Minnesota Opera. He described himself as being "blown over by how good it was."

"For Steve, what's good is a notch higher than what's good for a lot of other theaters," Titus adds. " I knew working with him was going to lead to something worthwhile."

Titus will provide music for Princess of Mars, which will likely be the only outer-space saga to appear on a Twin Cities stage this year. With its many fantastical elements--the finale, for instance, involves crosscuts between an epic battle and palace intrigues--the show provides prohibitive challenges in staging. (A planned film version, titled John Carter of Mars, promises to throw a hundred million dollars at the problem. Hardcover's budget is less than $15,000.) Schroer initially intended to sidestep such complications by using hand puppets to portray the gargantuan aliens, with hero John Carter narrating the piece in the form of a ventriloquist's dummy. Problems arose pretty quickly.

"I had trouble finding a ventriloquist, for one thing," Schroer says. "Then I decided I had to make the show more human. Still, you've got all these monsters, 40-foot spears, John Carter with extra strength and leaping ability in the Martian gravity. There's just no realistic equivalent."

Unable to place a ventriloquist's dummy in Mars's toxic atmosphere, Schroer seems to be piloting the production toward the outer limits of plausibility. Pre-production notes suggest that the Martian monsters will take the form of masks affixed to long poles, and the imagery will draw from African shamans and Egyptian symbolism. The show will also lean on a Hardcover trademark, direct narration to the audience, in order to bridge the gap between book and play.

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