Amazing things can happen in plain little black-box spaces, and “The Lathe of Heaven” turns Spooky Action Theater’s church basement stage into an absorbing sci-fi playground.
That kind of magic takes a special vision, and the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel is in the creative hands of adaptor-director Natsu Onoda Power. Of three new small-scale works in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival — “Lathe,” “Count Down” and “The Veils” — “Lathe” is the one with the ability to transport.
Le Guin’s novel has been made into movies twice, but its plot, about a dreamer whose dreams come true, is a tall order for the stage. How do you show reality altering in a futuristic Portland? How do you conjure aliens without looking corny? How do you envision Earth without race?
Power’s special effects are handmade: This isn’t a big-budget show. But she creates wonderful illusions as cameras project large images of small cutout scenes and cartoon panels. The visual vocabulary is a creative mash-up of stage techniques, early cinema and classic comics.
Le Guin fans may find the tone radically broadened from the novel, which focuses on the Orwellian-named George Orr (Matthew Marcus) and his reality-bending dreams that get manipulated by the well-meaning but ultimately tragic Dr. Haber (Matthew Vaky). An ensemble of Georgetown University students (where Power teaches, and which is co-producing the show) changes the ever-moving scenery, operates the cameras and panels, and plays supporting roles. It’s the kind of production in which a trio of nurses can introduce a futuristic medical facility while dancing to the 1970s disco hit “The Hustle.”
The end sobers up beautifully, though, especially when George and his lawyer/lover (Erica Chamblee) are rendered as practically bodiless puppets. Knowing the book may help, but the mad 90-minute experiment will sweep you along either way.
Dominique Cieri’s “Count Down” is another kind of laboratory. It locks seven extremely unruly, at-risk high-school-age girls in a room with a playwright-teacher in a battle of wills. Cieri lived this experience, and you can feel it in the loud, wild performances from director Bari Hochwald’s young cast.
You know where this “Dangerous Minds”-style drama is heading, and, at more than 2½ hours, it takes too long to get there, particularly in the unembellished production at Baltimore’s Strand Theater. What it gets right, though, is the abrasiveness of the girls — the sneering, fighting and massive acting out. You can’t imagine how any teacher (played by Brittany Nicole Timmons) survives for 30 minutes.
Cieri manages to cut through to the girls’ individual troubles, which goes a long way to explaining their hyper-aggressiveness and impenetrable shells. The drama is too exhaustive; at times it feels like a fascinated reporter’s shapeless notebook dump. But it’s a valuable subject, and the women playing the seven abused and neglected characters create an appropriately horrifying vibe.
Less lively is “The Veils,” a drama from Nu Sass Productions about dual grief suffered by Melody, a woman translating for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Back home, Mel’s father recently died. In the field, loss is bound to happen.
Hope Villanueva’s play tries to tease out what her tough main character is suppressing, but it’s a static, talky project. Angela Kay Pirko’s production at the Anacostia Arts Center splits the tiny stage in two: Mel’s mother and sister on one side, and Mel’s military comrades — two male soldiers — on the other.
In the bluntly acted dialogue you can hear poetic connections across the geographic divide. Refrains deal with engagements, memories and how to cope with loss, but in this flat-looking show, the words don’t pump up the stage with telling imagery or dynamic tension. Black boxes are known for honest, realistic reckonings, but right now, it’s the bold fantasy that fits best.
The Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Call 202-248-0301 or visit spookyaction.org.
Dates: Through March 11.
Strand Theater, 5426 Harford Rd., Baltimore. strand-theater.org.
Dates: Through March 4.
Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Rd. SE. nusass.com.
Dates: Through March 4.