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!"

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.

It's a technique that has drawn criticism in the past. A 2004 Star Tribune review of Hardcover's adaptation of Alcott's Behind a Mask, for instance, suggested that "the style cheapens the hard work of subtext, implication, and mystery."

The actors don't seem to mind. "It didn't seem strange to me in any way," counters Bob Malos, who played Captain Wolf Larson in The Sea Wolf last year--although he points out that his role didn't require him to narrate to the audience. "There is first-person narration in lots of plays. People talk about it in Steve's adaptations because he always uses it."

It's not as though directly addressing the audience is anything new: Shakespeare relied plenty upon the device. Henry V opens with an appeal for overlooking technical limitations: "Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did afright the air at Agincourt?"

 

The fact that Hardcover has developed a sort-of trademark style suggests something about its particular spot in the local theater ecosystem. The troupe seems to be at a point in its life where it will find a wider audience or join the ranks of worthy experiments that withered from lack of interest and funding. Schroer mentions the difficulty in breaking into a scene composed of many longtime residents, as well as the strain of writing adaptations, handling administrative tasks, and directing the lion's share of Hardcover shows.

"I have great faith in the idea of the theater," he says. "But we don't really have the resources we need."

Hardcover, of course, isn't alone in scrambling for a piece of the pie. The theater collective 15 Head gave up the ghost last year, and Pigs Eye and Fifty Foot Penguin have recently curtailed their seasons. Schroer seems more adept at the artistic end of running a company than the management part, and mentions a need for administrative help. Put another way, he admits he "isn't a great politician."

He surely hasn't made the actor's job any easier with the erratic collection of roles in his latest audition. Back in the church, a young and guileless man tackles a reading of Tal Hajus. And though it's hard to say what a sadistic outsized Martian would sound like, it probably isn't like this. If anything, this game attempt comes off like a parody of the tentacled aliens that turn up annually in Simpsons Halloween specials.

"But I would rather watch your beautiful face writhe in the agony of torture," the actor says. "It shall be long, drawn out--that I promise you. Four, six, eight moons of pleasure would be too short to show the love I harbor for your race!"

It only takes an eight-minute sight-read, however, to see that this space opera will be another of Hardcover's labors of love.

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