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Theater Review: 'Heart of Darkness' illuminates Joseph Conrad's words

The language, though a lot to process, drives this stage adaptation of the author's novel set in the African Congo.

April 09, 2013|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Brian T. Finney in the Actors' Gang production of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
Brian T. Finney in the Actors' Gang production of Joseph Conrad's… (Jean-Louis Darville )

Actors' Gang stalwart Brian T. Finney invites us to once again venture deep into the interior of the African Congo in his adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," now at the Ivy Substation.

This stripped-down Actors' Gang production zooms in on Finney's intensely contained performance as Marlow, the seaman who tells the story of his obsessive pursuit of the mysterious Kurtz, an ivory trader who has come to symbolize, among other things, the insatiable greed of imperial conquest.

Flanked by two performers (Pierre Adeli and Adam Jefferis) who function as stagehands and rapt listeners, Finney gives himself over to Conrad's words, the production's true star. His performance, under the direction of Keythe Farley, adopts a simmering tone that threatens to erupt into a full boil the closer Marlow gets to the heat of Kurtz's madness.

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Because the bulk of "Heart of Darkness" involves Marlow recounting his transfiguring adventure to shipmates on a vessel anchored at the mouth of the Thames, it might seem as if the book is tailor-made for this kind of straightforward theatrical narration. It does indeed lend itself readily to a (more or less) solo rendition, but there are inherent problems in the transition from page to stage that aren't completely solved here.

Finney, looking vaguely like a cousin of Henrik Ibsen in Ann Closs-Farley's vintage safari garb, recounts the saga as though it were the memory of a debilitating illness. Marlow has become intimately acquainted with the primitive nature of ostensibly civilized man, and Finney's eyes burn with the knowledge.

But even in this condensed version, there's a lot of language for an audience to process in one sitting. And Conrad's book, though vivid in detail retrieved from his own far-flung travels, can be difficult to follow when internal impressions begin to obscure external events.

The reflective cadences of Finney's voice grow lulling, though the actor's dedication to the text is completely admirable. And the staging — artfully integrating Jason Thompson's projections, which appear on makeshift sails floating along Sibyl Wickersheimer's minimalist set — allows Conrad's prose to hold sway.

An eloquent program note by Finney addresses the urgency of reading "Heart of Darkness" amid today's genocidal rampages and touches on the problematic nature of Conrad's overriding European perspective. This provides a useful context for a theatrical adaptation that lets this enduring tale speak for itself.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Heart of Darkness'

Where: The Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

Tickets: $34.99

Contact: (310) 838-4264 or http://www.theactorsgang.com

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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