Ron Sossi is not a timid man. Where others undertake cautionary theater, he is willing to pursue an idea.
Nine years ago it was "The Adolf Hitler Show," an imperfect but intriguing stitching of imaginary politics. Six years ago it was "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial," blustery theater of compressed fact. Three years ago he offered "Mary Barnes," a graphic excursion into psychological disorder.
At other times it's been an eclectic assortment of Tadeusz Rosewicz, Orton, Buchner, Genet, Machiavelli, Brecht or Hampton.
Now it's David Wolpe's three-hour adaptation of David Lindsay's cult science-fiction novel of the '20s, "A Voyage to Arcturus," where all the traveling is inward. It opened last weekend at Sossi's Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in a production marked by simplicity that fascinates the eye, intrigues the mind, but never touches the emotions.
Sossi, smartly (and of necessity), has allowed imagination to serve the viewer on a par with representation. Jean Blanchette has created a startling assortment of inventive costumes (it's amazing what that man can do with a handful of scraps). These stand out against and complement Don Llewellyn's graceful and deliberately stark, U-shaped stage (an uncommon design, at once functional and aesthetically seductive, that enhances whatever is on it).
There, 15 scenes, better described as episodes in a mystical and sometimes mystifying adventure, unfold with an improbable mix of Victorian quaintness and a vigorous, exalted imagination.
Nothing is more representative of both than the names Lindsay has coined for places and creatures (such musical mouthfuls as Oceaxe, Leehallfae, Earthrid, Joiwind, Polecrab, Corpang, Surtur, Swaylone, Sullenbode)--or the adaptation's opening scene: an aborted seance in a British drawing room at the turn of the century, its air fraught with danger and promise.
The tension delivers. Events escalate rapidly from there into a complex geometry of the real and the supernatural. Two men, the eager Maskull (played by a series of actors, a device Sossi used just as successfully in his 1974 "Peer Gynt") and the cryptic Nightspore (Jill Harmon), late arrivals at the seance, are drawn by a forceful intruder named Krag (Tom Lillard) who, in a series of well-calculated maneuvers, spirits them away to the star Arcturus.
But what is this "Voyage"? A "Martian Chronicles" of the soul and a "Peer Gynt" of inner space, exploring good and evil, reality and surreality, life, death, our world and other worlds that may or may not exist. The possibility is all.
However, explanations of this lengthy, often lumbering and enigmatic novel tend to cheapen its mysteries. They are the heart of Lindsay's thought and not to be sold short. And yet that is the principal problem with Wolpe's fairly literal adaptation.
He doesn't explain; he compresses, and to compress such a complicated and unclear philosophical journey is to abridge and reduce it in scope. Paradoxically, that only makes the episodic nature of the piece feel repetitious and long.
Well, long it is--undeniably, at three hours. And repetitious too. And its ending misses the anguish in the novel's final, probing questions. The line is there, but none of the emotional climate that accompanies Nightspore's desperate cry, "Why was all this necessary?"
None of this makes Sossi's attempt any the less audacious. It just doesn't go far enough. Even its abstractions frequently feel earthbound. He makes true his theater's name by creating a strong (if uneven) ensemble, but other things remain puzzling. Is the casting of Harmon, a woman, as a man an attempt at obliterating genders? Not clear. And why are some props real and others imaginary?
It is finally possible that "A Voyage to Arcturus," which is such a personal quest and private interpretation of the universe, simply is not stage material. The theater is so strongly presentational and this novel so elusive and broad that it may not tolerate the constrictions. Yet something also suggests that there must be a key--theater can be extraordinarily liberating--but that it will take more time or skill or both to find it.
Performances at 12111 Ohio St. (near Bundy) run Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., until Nov. 10. There will be two matinees only, Sunday and Oct. 27 at 3. (213-826-1626).