Mad Scientist of the South Seas

As Carl Sagan once observed, science affects our everyday lives in countless ways, yet very few people understand it. The result is a world in which the cloning of Dolly the sheep can horrify people who don't think twice about their car emissions' effect on the ozone layer. This world seems very far away from that of 1896, when H.G. Wells wrote his science-fiction horror classic The Island of Dr. Moreau, but in Radiotheatre's new staging, the tale is a fable for today. Chilling and thought-provoking, Moreau is also a superbly crafted, fast-paced, and perfectly scored piece of live "radio drama." Catch the abridged version, now playing at the Red Room Theater as part of the Frigid Festival. It's well worth seeing twice—once now and again in October and November at Radiotheatre's H.G. Wells Science Fiction Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters.

In this adaptation, written and directed by Dan Bianchi, wholesome young American missionary and shipwreck survivor John Prentice (Aaron Mathias) washes up on the shore of an obscure island in the South Seas. He is revived by Montgomery (William Greville), an exile from San Francisco, and taken to meet Montgomery's friend and mentor, the English eccentric Dr. Moreau (Cash Tilton).

Prentice also meets the folks whom Moreau calls "the natives"—strange creatures, not entirely human, who turn out to be the products of Moreau's experiments in the extreme acceleration of evolution in nonhuman animals. Still mostly animal, they fear their creator Moreau and his "house of pain" and so follow the rules he has laid down, in which they are periodically instructed by the horn-headed Sayer of the Laws (Greville).

The actors deal admirably with the challenge of playing humans, animals, and everything in between. In particular, Elizabeth Burke portrays both Prentice's prim but gutsy fiancée and the fierce but loving islander Lota as a sharply specific pair of opposites. Robert Nguyen howls, screeches, and barks his way through his lines as Moreau's bestial henchman Mungo, and, as Moreau himself, Tilton is alternately affable and maniacal.

As Prentice, Mathias exhales some of his lines as if he's actually been running through a forest, exhausted and terrified. Wes Shippee juggles the sound and his role, the beast-man Oren, with aplomb. Patrick O'Connor's narration is clear and passionate but does not overwhelm the characters.

Originally on a mission to bring the doctrines of his church to South Seas islanders, Prentice quickly becomes confused. Should he flee Moreau's island or must he save its "natives" from their devilish god? Is his ambition to change the people of non-Christian nations into people more like himself (which seems as hubristic as Moreau's diabolical project)?

Radiotheatre tells this engrossing story in its usual style. Actors stand in front of microphones, reading from their scripts with great skill in the characterization. A complex score of sound effects and music creates background, mood, and suspense. From the heartbeat-like drums to the shrieks and yowls of the islanders to the South Seas waves, Bianchi's sound design conjures up sets and action to rival the most expensive Broadway mega-musical or a blockbuster enhanced with computer-generated imagery. And it's all in each auditor's theater of the mind.

A worthy follow-up to the same company's character-driven, chilling The Haunting of 85 West 4th Street, this is a must-see show. Or rather, a must-hear and must imagine for yourself show.

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