Review: ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ at The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts

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The Island of Dr. Moreau is kind of like a 19th century Jurassic Park. In fact, it’s more grisly than the latter – Moreau involves the forcible creation of human/animal hybrids – but the message is the same: Nature always finds a way to prove it’s still more powerful than humans.

Cassandra Newman, (Prendick), and Bill Greene (Dr. Moreau). Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.
Cassandra Newman, (Prendick), and William Greene (Dr. Moreau). Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

This OG nature-kicks-butt dystopia was given a wonderfully fascinating treatment by students in the course, “Creating a Role,” at The Theatre Lab in Washington, DC. The students’ performance of The Island of Dr. Moreau was the final culmination of their semester of work, and it absolutely lived up to The Theatre Lab’s reputation for high quality theatre training in the District. Unfortunately, Moreau only ran for one weekend on April 7-9th. But what they did was really cool.

Although Moreau was first published in 1896 by celebrated science fiction author H.G.Wells, the version at The Theatre Lab is more recent. Written in 2007 by Robert Kauzlaric, this version is a bit like a dramatized Reader’s Digest version of Wells’ novel. So it’s great for people like me who will honestly probably never read The Island of Dr. Moreau, but who love to get a taste of the original author’s language and story.

The tale begins with Dr. Mary Prendick (gender swapped from “John Prendick” in the original novel), played by Cassandra Newman, an amateur Victorian scientist whose ship is destroyed somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. She is miraculously saved by Montgomery (Dane C. Petersen), a jaded merchant of sorts who works for Dr. Moreau (William Greene).

Cassandra Newman is a strong and connected Prendick who bears a great deal of the weight of the show on her shoulders. She handles the lead role with admirable strength and brings a sense of urgency to what can be at times ponderous (to our 21st century ears) text.

Dane C. Petersen, as the lackey-cum-disciple Montgomery, is like a mixture of Igor and Captain Ahab and Doug Stamper from House of Cards all rolled into one seamy individual. Petersen’s off the cuff callousness and nihilism are critical components of the story, and Petersen nails them. He also somehow manages to be sympathetic despite his many bad life choices.

As the megalomaniacal medical monster Dr. Moreau, William Greene brings a great gravitas and charisma to his role. As a mini-god of his own gruesome personal island, Moreau is certainly horrifying. But Greene sharpens his performance with and earnest and desperately self righteous edge that adds texture and complexity to what can be a villainous caricature.

While Prendick travels on Montgomery’s ship, inexplicably loaded with all kinds of exotic animals including a Puma (Quo Judkins), she encounters M’ling (Dina Soltan), a bestial creature who is slavishly devoted to Montgomery and something she calls “The Law.” Prendick is also shouted down by the ship’s captain, Davies (Tom Hamilton), a salty sailor sort. Dina Soltan makes smart physical and vocal choices to transform into a servile but sweet M’ling. Tom Hamilton is both hilarious and terrifying as the drunken seaman.

When Prendick finally begins to explore the island, she encounters all sorts of half human/half beast creatures. The Puma (Quo Judkins) is Moreau’s most immediate test subject, and so has some unique moments to shine on stage. Judkins fully commits to her jungle cat physicality, and is truly convincing as a powerful beast who is nevertheless constrained.

Diego Ortiz plays the Ape Man, whose name pretty much sums up his biology. He acts as a sort of bridge between Prendick and the rest of the hybrids because he trusts her because they both have five fingers. Ortiz is compelling to watch on stage because of his physicality and his commitment to his character.

Whereas many of the animals are servile, the Leopard Man (Kellik Dawson) is a harshly defiant creature who has numerous conflicts with Moreau and his ilk. Kelik Dawson brings a gritty intensity to his role that makes him stand out whenever he is on stage.

One of the most fascinating things about The Island of Dr. Moreau is how, once the good doctor makes his creations, he instills in them a powerful religious impulse – directed, of course, at Dr. Moreau himself. The critical piece of this pseudo faith is The Law, a dogma that essentially preaches slavish devotion to the Masters and a quashing of natural impulses. The Sayer of the Law (Len Breslow) is a wizened old hybrid who leads the rest of the clan in their blind faith.

The menagerie of creatures, which also includes a Vixen-Bear Woman (Joey Schulman), a Dog Woman (Rachael Susaneck), a Swine Woman (Haley Shea), a Donkey Woman (Marta Goldsmith), and a Llama Man (Tom Hamilton), make up a well-oiled ensemble. Their collection of hoots and other animal sounds opens the show, creating a sense of a sleeping (but not quite sleeping) jungle that is a very cool way to open the show.

The glue that holds the show together is the wonderful direction by Randy Baker. Baker uses the wide open space of the Calvary Baptist Church to his advantage, creating the sense of an expansive, far flung other world. This is aided by some clever placement of ladders that both connects the lower space to the upper balcony and helps frame the central playing space.

Lighting Designer Kris Thompson utilizes clever placement of a few LED lights to create a wonderfully garish wash of colors on stage. Sound Designer Angelo Merenda helps to unify the production by providing a constant soundtrack of mysterious jungle sounds.

William Greene (Dr. Moreau). Photo by Ryan Taylor Photography.
William Greene (Dr. Moreau). Photo by Ryan Taylor Photography.

Because of its historical context, The Island of Dr. Moreau contains undeniable echoes of colonialism, eugenics, and slavery. But even if some of the most egregious examples of European scientific authoritarianism have gone the way of the cotton gin, this story still contains a powerful message about the consequences of interfering with nature, and the hollow cynicism present in many so-called “religious” teachers.

This production of The Island of Dr. Moreau was fascinating and entertaining, and it showed that a lot of good learning is happening at The Theatre Lab.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Island of Dr. Moreau played for one weekend only, April 7-9, 2016, at The Theatre Lab – 733 8th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information about The Theatre Lab, go to their website.