Review: ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ at Spooky Action Theater (Women’s Voices Theater Festival)

Puppets, people, props, projections, and sci-fi pop up a lot on DC stages, but not often with the narrative verve, literary cred, and nonstop wit of The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted and directed by acclaimed theatrical deviser Natsu Onada Power from the book by renowned fantasy fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven is Spooky Action Theater’s dazzling entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Le Guin died at the age of 88 while the show was in rehearsal. Years before she gave Spooky Action Artistic Director Richard Henrich permission to adapt The Lathe of Heaven for the stage. Had she lived to see or hear of the lively results, I suspect she would have been impressed with what Power has done—the way one illimitable imagination might recognize another.

Matthew Marcus (as George Orr) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

There’s a storyline based on the novel about a very ordinary, unassuming man named George Orr (Matthew Marcus) who has one extraordinary power: his dreams can alter reality. Troubled by this, he goes for counseling to a sleep specialist, Doctor Haber (Matthew Vaky), a seeming humanitarian who is revealed as a powermonger seeking to harness Orr’s powers for malevolent purposes. But first Haber—concerned that he may be invading Orr’s privacy by studying his dreams—refers Orr to a tough-minded, civil rights lawyer, Heather Lalache (Erica Chamblee). As it happens, Heather is badass and biracial, the nerdy white dream weaver falls in love with her, and he tries to end racism in the world by dreaming everyone gray.

There are plenty of twists to that plot, but the real story that unfolds on stage is one of breathless anticipation for what captivating inventiveness will happen next.

The play takes place the year the novel was published, 1971—making all years afterward “far far in the future.” Before it begins, Sound Designer Roc Lee spins period tunes such as “Dream Weaver” and “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just then released.

Three white shelving units packed with white storage boxes command the stage (Power did the novel set design). Stage right and left are metal tables that are in view of video cameras, about to be utilized by the inspired Projection Designer Danny Carr. During the show, members of the Ensemble (Mark Camilli Jr., Vanessa Chapoy, Jonathan Compo, Michaela Farrell, Kate Ginna, Adrian Jesus Iglesias, and Maddy Rice) sit at those tables nimbly positioning puppets, mounted graphics, and other objects to be shown on the shelving units. Over the course of the 90-minute run time, this mini meta-theater effect just keeps getting cleverer.

For instance, as George tells Dr. Haber about a traumatic experience he had as a boy when his inappropriate Aunt Ethel had creepy designs on him, the scene is enacted seriocomically on camera by puppets. This sets up a story point: George dreamt she was killed in a car crash and sure enough she was. But it also captures our own imaginations in the creative abundance of the show’s storytelling method.

Michaela Farrel (Ensemble), Matthew Marcus (George Orr), and Matthew Vaky (Doctor Haber) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

There’s a real world outside the play, with billions of people and even some aliens, so there’s a thread of social commentary. At one point newspaper headlines are projected about overpopulation, pollution, bombings, and other calamities—which Haber in cahoots with George’s dreaming tries to manipulate for better or for worse. But to assure us this show’s an audience-friendly amusement and not a slog through issues, we’re treated to a folksy scene of Ensemble member Maddy Rice singing a lovely song about Portland, Oregon, because, well, that’s where Le Guin set the story.

Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny gives the three main characters credible real-world wardrobes but the Ensemble gets to wear fanciful stuff such as gray zippered uniforms and incongruous white shoes. Lighting Designer Adam Bacigalupo’s delightful work sometimes evokes a pinball game (which at one point Lee literally lets us hear). And Props Designer Caolan Eder’s playful wit is all over the place, such as the colander contraption George wears on his head while Dr. Haber measures his brainwaves, and the hooves made of cardboard boxes with which members of the Ensemble conjure a horse.

Matthew Vaky as Haber turns in an imposing performance that is both good guy and bad guy. Matthew Marcus as George Orr is a wonderfully worthy nerd. And Erica Chamblee as Heather Lelache conveys a dimension of conscience that nicely centers the play.

Maddy Rice (Ensemble), Matthew Marcus (George Orr), Michaela Farrel (Ensemble), Kate Ginna (Ensemble), Erica Chamblee (Heather Lalache), and Vanessa Chapoy (Ensemble) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

But it is in the love relationship between George and Heather that the production most astonishingly merges acting and design. Near the end, their characters are represented by gray puppets, with Chamblee, Marcus, and the Ensemble bringing Heather and George to life in an erotically magical connection.

The Lathe of Heaven at Spooky Action Theater transforms fantasy fiction prose into an ingenious multimedia entertainment and could not be more enjoyable. R.I.P., Ursula K. Le Guin. Brava, Natsu Onada Power. And kudos to the whole cast and creative team.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Lathe of Heaven plays through March 11, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

LINK: 

Tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin by Natsu Onoda Power and Richard Henrich

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Ursula K. Le Guin (Novelist) published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation.  She has received many awards including Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, and the National Book Foundation Medal.

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Natsu Onoda Power (Adaptor/Director). Natsu Onoda Power playwrighting credits include The T Party, A Trip to the Moon, and Astro Boy and the God of Comics (2015 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Director in Small Theatre). Directing credits include projects at Olney Theater, Center Stage Baltimore, Studio Theatre, Theatre J, Forum Theatre, Synetic Theatre.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.