GULLIVER'S LAST TRAVELS
Organic Theater Company
"It's not the way I remember the book," I thought watching Lawrence Bommer's adaptation of Gulliver's Travels. Most of the people and places here aren't anything like those I imagined when I read Jonathan Swift's fictional travelogue. Of course, no two people interpret fiction in the same way. But Bommer skillfully presents his unique vision while keeping the story silly, scatological, and sharply satiric--very much as I remember Swift's writing.
Bommer begins with Gulliver's third voyage, breaking it into energetic sketch-length scenes that successfully satirize the uselessness and arrogance of rulers in 20th-century America as well as Swift's 18th-century England. On the floating island of Laputa, for instance, the Grand Cogitator directs scientists in experiments that are either wildly impractical or meant to further enslave his subjects. Projects include a procedure to turn excrement into food and another to abolish speech and "the unnecessary thoughts that come with it."
The second act and final voyage favors long speeches in which a sage race of horses called Houyhnhnms expound their philosophies. As one horse explains, "Houyhnhnm" means "perfection of nature--that's a goal, not a boast." Fortunately, their measured, almost boring refinement is interspersed with the loud crudeness of the Yahoos who share their island. Filthy, lazy, and cruel--and, in Bommer's version, funny--the Yahoos are Swift's final, hopeless portrait of mankind.
The raucous opening scenes of Organic Theater's production have the forced excitement of a children's play. Even before the lights go up, we hear the cackling of townspeople ridiculing Gulliver for making up stories about little people and giants. In the next scene, when Gulliver's ship is ambushed, pirates swing in on ropes, yelling (what else?) "Argh!" Though at first these broad moments are irritating, director Steve Scott eventually strikes a balance with the more plodding expository speeches. In the end I left the theater with the vague notion that I had seen a musical, thanks to the rowdy pirates, the rhythmic drumming of the Yahoos, and the tribal chanting of the Luggnaggs.
Beautiful in its simplicity and the way it prods our imaginations, Cheryl Anne Levin's scenic design is the most original and successful element of Gulliver's Last Travels. A single door represents Gulliver's home, then--laid down on an angle--becomes a ship. A second door, suspended horizontally on cables, is lowered over Gulliver as an entrance to the floating island. Several doors are added to suggest the mazelike quality and mystery of Luggnagg, and finally are arranged symmetrically to evoke the orderly stables of the Houyhnhnms.
While most of Erica Hoelscher's costumes add to the fantasy without being particularly interesting, her Houyhnhnm costumes, with their full, flowing fabric, enchant. Wearing small black ears, a mane of flowing black nylon, loose-fitting turtlenecks, and extra-wide pants, the players strut like Irish dancers--the human equivalent of proud horses--torsos rigid, arms always at their sides, kicking their heels lightly.
In the title role, Gary Houston improves upon my memory of Gulliver as smug. Despite Gulliver's know-it-all attitude, Houston maintains an underlying humility that makes him exceedingly likable. We feel Gulliver's humiliation when he's kidnapped by the hideous Yahoos, then rescued by his beloved Houyhnhnms as he's wrestling on all fours with a Yahoo. Frozen in his ultimate shame, his teeth bared like an animal, Houston captures the essence of Gulliver, who longs for greatness but is kept down by man's inherent bestiality.
The 11-person ensemble tackle Bommer's burlesque-style comedy unflinchingly. Because they play it straight, we can laugh at the bad jokes, rich wordplay, and purposely contradictory statements. J. David Blazevich is excellent as the Luggnagg guide who convinces Gulliver to lick the floor in front of the king, reasoning: "You'll feel better, our king will feel better, and the floor will be a whole lot cleaner." Jon Thompson is funny as the arrogant Grand Cogitator and sweet as Master Horse, but he has his best, most understated moment as a captain under mutiny. With no sign of malice he philosophizes, "It's not my ship. The adventure now belongs to the crew." Lavonne Byers steals every scene she's in as Aridia, the Grand Cogitator's oversexed spouse, and as the friend who consoles Gulliver's unfaithful wife during his absence, saying, "In seven years you'll be a widow and you can finally be a wife."
Despite my initial impressions, Gulliver's Last Travels is not for kids--it's for adults who like to pretend, laugh, and think.