Beautifully designed with wit and panache, but adaptation drags
|House Theatre of Chicago presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
The press release for Diamond Dogs describes source material author Alastair Reynolds as “one of a new generation of hard science fiction authors.” The issue with “hard science fiction” is that its core audience is extremely specific. This isn’t “Star Wars” or even “Star Trek” – from my viewing of Diamond Dogs, I gather that hard science fiction is dark, disturbing and ultimately relentless. Adapted by Althos Low (the collective pen name of what’s essentially a playwriting committee), the House Theatre’s latest features the company’s trademark gorgeous production values and intelligent stage magic. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult to follow, with an overly long first act and themes that can (kindly) be described as “muddled.”
Diamond Dogs follows the “deadly maze” style of science fiction, and is the first of Reynolds’ novels to be adapted for another medium. The sci-fi stock characters are all there: the Everyman with secrets (John Henry Roberts), his extremely smart, estranged romantic partner (Katherine Keberlein), and his old friend who sports a goatee and ulterior motives (Chris Hainsworth). There’s also the wisecracking adventurer (Elana Elyce), the fearless but logical leader (Abu Ansari) and the robot (Joey Steakley), who revels in experimenting on human subjects. It’s the 26th century, they’re on a journey to find a mysterious alien tower, and puzzles, riddles and challenges abound. Ultimately, no one is safe.
The primary problem with Diamond Dogs is that no one seems fully invested. Even the cast, an ensemble of consistently brilliant performs, seem constantly on the verge of apologizing to the audience. There’s nothing wrong with a sub-genre that appeals to a certain audience, but presenting such a sub-genre can cost a company valuable audience revenue. Diamond Dogs kicks off with a good 40 minutes of exposition that could have been cut back without much difficulty, but as it stands, not even the always-phenomenal Roberts can salvage the unnecessary dialogue. Diamond Dogs was originally written by one author but adapted for the stage by a committee, and this discrepancy makes for a messy and muddled first act, before the action kicks in almost too late.
Luckily, what almost saves Diamond Dogs is the House’s inherent gift for adapting the unadaptable with wit and panache. Award-winning puppet designer Mary Robinette Kowal does striking work with artificial heads, limbs and spires (additional kudos to puppeteer Lindsey Dorcus). Lee Keenan’s set and lighting design aptly puts the audience in a dystopian future, where a plague runs rampant and people can live forever – but at what cost? Costume designer Izumi Inaba does beautiful work with the characters’ space gear, and stage manager Brian DesGranges keeps the magic running smoothly. As previously mentioned, the actors – particularly Roberts, Elyce and Ansari – do their best with the material they are given, but it ultimately isn’t enough. Diamond Dogs isn’t going to go down in House Theatre history. It’s a serviceable production with excellent actors and lovely puppetry, but the dark, exposition-heavy plot ends up utterly unappealing. Diamond Dogs has many factors in its favor: the cast, Nathan Allen’s direction, the fantastic production values. What the production lacks, however, is heart.
Diamond Dogs continues through March 5th at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 7pm. Tickets are $30-$35 (students, industry: $15 same day), and are available by phone (773-769-3832) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheHouseTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Chris Hainsworth (Childe), John Henry Roberts (Swift), Elana Elyce (Hirz), Katherine Keberlein (Celestine), Abu Ansari (Forqueray), Joey Steakley (Trintignant), Lindsey Dorcus (Puppeteer), Ben Hertel, Katherine Bourne, Ryan McBride (understudies)
behind the scenes
Nathan Allen (director), Jesse Ross (asst. director), Derek Matson (dramaturg), Lee Keenan (scenic and lighting design), Izumi Inaba (costume design), Kevin O’Donnell (composer), Sarah Espinoza (sound design), Mary Robinette Kowal (puppet design), Eleanor Kahn (props manager), Brian DesGranges (stage manager), Meghan Erxleben (asst. lighting design), Bobby Huggins (technical director), CoCo Ree Lemery (scenic change), Jerica Hucke (costume manager), John Kelly (master electrician), David Trudeau (asst. master electrician), Cole von Glahn (sound board operator), Rachael Koplin (asst. stage manager), Kate Grudichak (wardrobe supervisor), James Kegel (lighting intern), Michael Brosilow (photographs)