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Hypnotic ‘Invisible Man’ illuminates a figure in the shadows

Teagle F. Boughere demonstrates extraordinary range nameless role center “Invisible Man.”

Teagle F. Boughere demonstrates extraordinary range in the nameless role at the center of “Invisible Man.”

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◆ Through Feb. 19

◆ Court Theatre,
5535 S. Ellis

◆ $45-$65

◆ (773) 753-4472;


Updated: February 25, 2012 8:06AM

A dense, eerily luminous, otherworldly cloud of bulbs and chandeliers hovers over the stage of Court Theatre now, as an altogether hypnotic adaptation of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s classic novel about race, power, freedom and identity, receives a galvanic, emotionally fevered world premiere.

Light might just be the most unlikely leitmotif for “Invisible Man,” an enthralling three-hour odyssey that is at once epic in its ambition and crushingly intimate in its painful examination of an embattled soul. For Ellison’s story is a stunning study in darkness. In fact, it might very well be thought of as a mid-20th century American version of Dante’s medieval classic “The Inferno.” And as theatricalized to brilliant effect by adapter Oren Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen, who has assembled a ferocious cast and a design team with a seamlessly matched vision, no circle of hell is left unvisited.

Teagle F. Bougere, an actor of breathtaking range, easy grace and emotional depth, plays the nameless young man of the title. As he wrestles with his destiny and travels from the Deep South to Harlem, he gradually moves into what can only be described as a state of total erasure. Yet out of that bleak, ideal-stripped emptiness comes a strange awareness, so that his very state of erasure becomes the catalyst for his revelatory self-portrait.

While all this sounds tremendously complex and densely philosophical, the miracle of McElroen’s production is that it unfolds like a fast-moving film. The actors, as well as the set, lighting and sound design team (Troy Hourie, John Culbert and Josh Horvath) and, most notably, the marvelously evocative projections of Alex Koch, are all exquisitely choreographed, so that the story blazes with as much heat, energy and action as talk. And the talk is thrilling — poetic, anguished, provocative and incendiary.

Although Ellison’s Hamlet-like protagonist is black, and much of the damage done to him is by fellow black men, “Invisible Man” makes it clear that racism insidiously warps and poisons the destinies of both slaves and masters, blacks and whites — turning them all into “undead” zombies over time, and creating a society undone by psychological disturbances.

The invisible man starts out as a shining example of his race, a guileless and promising young intellectual from the rural South who wins a scholarship to a formidable black college (even if that prize is tainted from the start). But an encounter with a white trustee of the college (a chilling Bill McGough) sets something of a Greek tragedy in motion. And the deeply angry and damaged black director of the college (a blistering performance by A.C. Smith, who brings an almost Idi Amin-like rage to this role) does the necessary dirty work.

The young man’s arrival in Harlem, with its bristling pace, edginess and promise, only evolves into a series of ever more dire nightmares as everything he tries, from factory job to high-profile front man for the communist party, ends up in his further undoing. One disappointment, disillusionment, betrayal and torment follows another — from horrifying electroshock treatments to a growing sense of impotence in the wake of his futile efforts to help his community, his friends and himself.

Lance Stuart Baker, superb in several roles, is supremely sinister as the white boss of an international “brotherhood.” Paul Oakley Stovall tears up the stage as Ras, the black nationalist. Throughout, Kenn E. Head does much charismatic morphing as a Tiersias-like prophet. And Tracey N. Bonner, Julia Watt, Chris Boykin and Kimm Beavers each bring a touch of magic to their multiple characterizations.

This is one of those productions you wish every politician would be forced to watch before uttering another empty word. Yet it goes far beyond such temporal matters to suggest the human condition writ large. You could feel the sheer weight of it all as Bougere visibly exhaled at the close of Saturday’s opening night performance. He was understandably exhausted beyond all reckoning after his journey as the superhuman Everyman who is no longer invisible, at least to himself. But the light was palpable.

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