Where: The House Theatre of Chicago, 1543 W. Division St.
When: through March 5
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I’ve never read any of the science fiction by prolific British astrophysicist-turned-writer Alastair Reynolds, but I was really looking forward to the House Theatre of Chicago’s world premiere of Diamond Dogs, the first of his works to be adapted for the stage and one of the 16 parts of his Revelation Space Universe, an epic chronicle set in the Episilon Eridani star system between the 25th and 28th centuries. This was especially true because the show was billed as part of the 2017 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, and The House has done remarkable work with puppets recently in The Hammer Trinity and A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch.
Alas, Diamond Dogs is a big disappointment on several counts. The adaptation by Althos Low, which is the pen name for Shanghai Low Theatricals, an adaptation and development group headed by veteran Chicago actor Steve Pickering, who wrote this script, relies on so much exposition in the first act that it’s easy to get lost or tune out. It’s even hard to figure out why the six characters assembled by Childe (Chris Hainworth) agree to embark on the very dangerous mission to climb a mysterious spiral tower hovering above their planet, Yellowstone. The tower seems to have killed many who’ve tried, and we don’t know what they hope to accomplish, though it may have something to do with resurrection for these people who already have learned how to extend their lives to hundreds of years. Aside from that, one participant, Hirz (Elana Elyce), seems to be motivated by money, while Trintignant (Joey Steakley), who has genetically modified himself with machine parts (notably his head), relishes the possibility of performing his experiments on others.
Once the sixwho also include the spaceship captain Forqueray (Abu Ansari), math genius Celestine (Katherine Keberlein), and our narrator Swift (John Henry Roberts), who was married to Celestine but has had all his memories of her suppressed or wiped (depending on who you believe)–are inside the tower, the narrative doesn’t get much more exciting, even though this is supposed to be a thriller. Instead, it becomes repetitive as they try to solve a series of increasingly difficult mathematical and spacial puzzles to progress from one level up to the next. If they get the answer right, they can proceed; if not, they’re punished by maiming and murderous lazers. In addition, the atmosphere in the tower keeps getting warmer, and the doors keep getting smaller. At one point, it’s suggested that the air is breathable, so they can take off their space suits, though since the suits seem to heal some of their injuries, it doesn’t make sense to do that. This is just one of the logical lapses in the sometimes confusing narrative that leads to a flat ending
The staging doesn’t live up to director Nathan Allen’s usual creative standards, either. The whole show is staged on a circular platform high enough off the floor (about a foot) that the sight lines are bad from many of the seats, which are all around it. In the center of Lee Keenan’s set is an open-bottom cylinder suspended from the ceiling above a small circular platform that occasionally rises from the main one.
This and some smoke is what we get to represent the spire, except for two lit arches moved by black-clad stage hands around the periphery as the doors from one level to the next. Keenan also is the lighting designer, and moving shafts of white, blue, and green light are the lazers. Gripping special effects are few and far between; the best is of an unfortunate character being sliced in half by a lazer.
Izumi Inaba’s space suits remind me of old science-fiction television shows like Flash Gordon or early episodes of Dr. Who (with Tom Baker), and when the actors’ helmets are on, their voices are disturbingly echo-y. The shiny, colorful mechanical replacement limbs that Trintignant fashions for the others have all the sophistication of a messy kindergarten project. And when he basically replaces all the parts of the last three humans, turning them into two-part diamond-shaped puppets designed by Mary Robinette Kowal, the heads look exactly like origami cootie catchers kids play with. The only other puppets are a couple of fake small drones operated by puppeteer Lindsey Dorcushardly enough to warrant inclusion in a puppet fest.
To make matters worse, when more than two actors are on stage, they tend to face into the circle and talk to each other. This may get around one blocking problem but it creates another: They’re not engaging with the audience at all, so we don’t connect with them or their situation. Some projections and more actual action might help, but as it is, the visuals are so lackluster, my companion commented that he might as well be listening to a radio broadcast. In fact, he thought that would be better because it’s easier to exercise your imagination when you’re not trying to watch somethingat least not something as lame as this Diamond Dogs.