Back From the Future

Having seen, or, rather, heard, Radiotheatre's I>The War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau, I eagerly anticipated another installment in their current H.G. Wells Science Fiction Theatre Festival -- The Time Machine, now playing at 59E59 Theatres through November 4th. The climax and ending of this adaptation of Wells' 1895 classic The Time Machine, written and directed by Radiotheatre's chief innovator Dan Bianchi, packs a chilling punch. However, the whole is not up to Radiotheatre's usual level of suspense and immediacy, on account of a frame-and-flashback structure that situates most of the play in the hero's past experience.

The set-up takes its time, with the Time Traveller (Jerry Lazar), a mad scientist whose grief for his late wife is his life's unhealable wound, puttering about his living room in the company of three rather nondescript friends. He invents the Time Machine. They don't believe him. Finally, the moment we are waiting for arrives: the Traveller tests the Machine, with himself in the driver's seat.

Moments later, the Traveller returns. He has come from the very distant future, to tell a story of high drama from beyond the end of human history. Unfortunately, a lot of the danger is a bit minimized by the fact that the Traveller has returned safely to the past -- obviously racked by post-traumatic stress, but alive and physically well.

The one future character who is differentiated enough to invite concern, love interest Theena, is passive and communicates nonverbally, albeit like her counterpart Weena in Wells's prose.

More frustratingly, Theena is played not by a live voice (like Lota in Radiotheatre's Moreau), but by pre-recorded sounds. They are great, surreal sounds, by the masterful Radiotheatre regular Wes Shippee, but they still combine with Theena's limp pathos to make her seem something less than human. Or, given her uncertain Linnaean classification, something less than a sentient creature.

This dramaturgical structuring makes it seem as if the Traveller's travels, narrated by him in the past tense, are part of the past, not the future. Of course, that paradox is part of Wells's and Radiotheatre's point, and supports the play's exploration of the effect of the possibility of time travel on speculation about deterministic versus fatalist concepts of history.

The action picks up when the Time Traveller reveals that he is not through with travelling, and finds that his friends remain skeptical about his vision of the future. The end of the play is scary -- especially because it is more scientifically possible than almost any other science fiction conceit with which I am familiar.

In short, if you love Wells, "The Time Machine," or the sci-fi or horror genres, this dramatization will prove enjoyable. So program your own Time Machine for an evening before November 5th and blast off to 59E59.

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