Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now is arguably the greatest film adaptation of a work of literature in the entire history of the cinema. In brilliantly reinterpreting Joseph Conrad’s 1899 Heart of Darkness and resetting the story from the Congo to Indochina, Coppola actually made Conrad’s themes more timely, relevant, accessible and compelling for a 1970s audience. So this cat’s curiosity was piqued at the notion of an Actors’ Gang reworking of Conrad’s novella into the mode of a one man show. How could this epic sweep be expressed within the confines of a solo show on a stage?
Under the tutelage of the Gang’s Artistic Director, West Covina’s very own Tim Robbins, the company’s “brand” (to use Mad Men lingo) leans towards the cutting edge, both in stretching the boundaries of the theatrical form, and in content. The latter includes incisive social commentary that eviscerates the status quo and other sacred cows with gay abandon. A prime example of the Gang’s onstage boldness in both shape and subject was Embedded, which came out during the early years of the Iraq War when it was still considered to be a “treasonable” offense to criticize the Bush administration’s decision to perpetrate what is now widely considered to be one of the biggest blunders in American — if not world — history.
Embedded co-starred Gang veteran Brian T. Finney, who not only performs the Heart of Darkness solo show, but (re-)wrote it. The one-person show is an intriguing format that can pursue different paths. The actor can incarnate a single personage — often an actual historical figure — as Hal Holbrook memorably has for decades and Val Kilmer is now of Mark Twain. Or the thespian can go all Anna Deveare Smith and depict a variety of characters, as in Smith’s 1994 Twilight, wherein she played multiple parts in a documentary type of theatre that explored the L.A. riot.
Finney navigates a kind of middle tack, in that he mainly portrays the fictitious Charles Marlow, the Englishman who goes to Africa as captain of a river steamboat and cruises up the Congo River towards his encounter with a much ballyhooed sort of Nietzschean “ubermensch.” Marlow tells us Kurtz is “a universal genius” who “speaks in an exalted voice.” This Belgian ivory procurer, Kurtz — whom our man Finney also brings to life from time to time — is reputedly as ingenious a philosopher as he is a great white hunter. The contradictory Kurtz is a highly cultured man who out-savages the African “savages.” Finney also briefly plays some female parts during his bravura performance, and in one droll scene gets all Dennis Hopper-y with us as a Russian sailor who is Kurtz’s Boswell, in a witty reference to Apocalypse Now. However, Finney usually appears in the persona of Marlow, whom Conrad seems to have named after one of the greatest English playwrights.
In any case, during the course of this odyssey, as Marlow enters the so-called heart of darkness, Kurtz experiences “the horror,” which rocks the European to the core of his being, completely upending him and his cosmos. And what exactly is this fabled “horror” that Conrad imparted to his readers, Coppola to his moviegoers and the Actors’ Gang to its ticket buyers, pray tell?
Well, existentialists may argue that it is the hell that is other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it in No Exit, or “the benign indifference of the universe,” as Albert Camus asserted in The Stranger. According to this train of thought “the horror” is the human condition itself, which condemns us all to loneliness and alienation.
But I don’t think I fully grasped the true and full nature of the “horror” until I saw Peter Bate’s documentary Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death at the 2012 Pan African Film Festival. According to this film the establishment in the late 19th century of Belgian King Leopold’s colonial empire in Africa turned much of the Congo into a vast labor-intensive, hyper-exploitative concentration camp committing mass murder on an industrial scale unparalleled before the rise of the Nazis. This unprecedented genocidal system intended to enrich Leopold and Belgium was eloquently denounced by American poet Vachel Lindsay in a 1914 poem:
“Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost,
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell,
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.”
“The horror,” then, can be understood to be the massive, merciless colonial exploitation of millions of human beings in the relentless, pitiless pursuit of not merely profit, but of maximizing profit. Of course, “the horror” is inflicted by the Western metropoles on the Third World — but also upon those who participate as cogs in the wheel of the brutal assembly line of oppression, torture, profiteering. This is what Kurtz glimpses — and, I suspect, precisely what those 22 U.S. military veterans per day who commit suicide also see. Perhaps these seething souls realize they’ve been suckered by movies, TV shows, videogames, recruitment ads and recruiters who promise them benefits, such as funding for those educations and other benefits they can’t afford, when instead they should have been told: “See the world, invade Third World nations that never harmed us, commit atrocities and war crimes, lose your limbs and sanity (if not your life) by being a tool of imperialism. Then, when you are no longer of use to us, don’t expect the healthcare and other services we promised you; get lost, losers.”
The Gang’s version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is psychologically and politically troubling; in other words, it is great, thought-provoking theatre, spearheaded by Finney’s bravura performance. The production is also highly entertaining and imaginatively rendered. Now, I do not mean for a moment to take away from Finney’s virtuoso acting, but in the strictest sense, this is not precisely a one man. And I say that not because there are two actors-cum-“stagehands” who, among other things, deftly maneuver sails about onstage but because of the imagery that projection designer Jason Thompson skillfully propels onto those sails/screens and elsewhere in the Gang’s resplendent Ivy (not ivory!) Substation. These images transport audiences from deepest darkest Culver City to the Congo and beyond, helping to set the place and tone. These projections are, in a sense, also a “character” in the play, with creative, mood enhancing stagecraft that includes Dan Weingarten’s lighting and composer and sound designer Mark Nichols’ aural tapestry. Are those throbbing heartbeats we hear or Congolese pounding the sharkskins?
The play’s the thing, all skillfully directed by Keythe Farley. From Africa to Indochina to Iraq and beyond, the bloodstained imperialists are still imposing “the horror” on the victims — and perpetrators — of their crimes against humanity. The Actors’ Gang strikes again: Its Heart of Darkness is nothing short of enlightening. Bravo!
Heart of Darkness plays at the Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. through May 18. For more info: (310)838-GANG.