ALEX SPARKSMAN WAS beginning to panic—he might soon be out of work again, the actor’s perennial dilemma. Where would his next job come from? Being addicted to the theater meant living on a whim and a shoestring. The footloose life allowed him to follow his dreams, court excitement, and encounter unusual challenges. But developing his talents also meant constantly living on the edge. The constraints of chronic uncertainty and facing the unknown must rankle every performer he told himself for reassurance—yet something always managed to come along.
Alex reminded himself he mustn’t freak out. A week away from completing a very successful and challenging run at The National Public Theater as the lead in The Invisible Man: H.G. Wells & Beyond, his performance had been singled out in unusually rave reviews. There were whispers the production might move to Broadway.
In the last years of the 19th century, H.G. Wells, the father of science fiction and an uncanny futurist, had prophesied the advent of aircraft, space travel, world wars, nuclear weapons, satellite television, time travel, biological engineering, alien invasion, the Internet, and even invisibility.
The play had been a windfall and unexpected opportunity. After Alex’s success playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, the innovative director, Kevin McCarney, asked him to collaborate on the staging of this unusual multimedia spectacle that was also a biopic of H.G. Wells’ life seen through the prism of his famous 1897 novel. Mirrors, stage lighting, video monitors, projected films, special effects, and a smoke machine created the live specter of the Invisible Man, a meme for the artist and mad scientist on the run with a trunk loaded with bottles, magic elixirs, and drugs.
Alex got a secret thrill each night hearing the audience gasps as he unwound the bandages around his head and there was nothing there! Headless, the audience couldn’t see the invisible screen while revolving mirrors completed the illusion, suffused by smoke, the theatrical guaranty of mystery. Collaborating on the play and then acting it, provided Alex with a new experience that enabled him to get both inside and outside of the mercurial, shape-shifting author.
To theatricalize the time warp, the director’s ingenious idea was to make the Invisible Man a double for the author himself as an oracle of the future looking both forward and backward in time. Incorporating vintage footage from the 1933 Claude Rains movie, along with other old film clips, grainy recordings of World War One aircraft and static radios enhanced the drama of the spooky noir flashbacks. Muted excerpts of bristling background music from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 evoked added suspense and mystery.
The National Public Theater’s production juggled the real and unreal by using projections and multiple revolving video screens around a central bank of rotating mirrors that created various illusions—tricks of time and perception. Designed by multimedia scenic magician Max Reinhart, this enabled Alex to transform himself in spectacularly dramatic ways in a double role riding the edge of visibility, an author decoyed by time and virtualized by a theater of invisibility.
The play was especially challenging and the production’s paramechanics proved unique, even haunting. The theater’s makeup specialist, Lena Binder, first constructed a thin facial mold of Alex’s face over which she created a lightweight and strikingly realistic prosthetic likeness of Herbert George Wells with the lidded, shrewdly perspicacious eyes, bushy eyebrows, and signature moustache that captured an other-worldly likeness of the famous author. The double meets his doppelganger!
Like Robert Lewis Stevenson’s famous 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Wells’ novels The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, written a decade later, also banked on Gothic elements of suspense and terror. The parallel stories of mad scientists who mess around with chemicals and potions to evoke radically disconnected secondary personalities and end up causing mayhem also had a political twist. Wells was young and unknown when he wrote the early novels for which he’s most remembered, only thirty-one when The Invisible Man was published.
The secret stealth of this anonymous, turn-of-the-century provocateur anticipated swashbuckling, nail-biting adventure stories of world wars, the life-and-death treachery of gadfly saboteurs and behind-the-scenes undercover agents who for their own safety had to remain invisible and unknown. These sagas took on another meaning after the psychedelic generation’s fascination with altered states, hallucinations, and alien realities.
Alex, by producing the illusion of dematerializing and transforming into an ethereal apparition, materialized the writer broadcasting the future. Concealed at first as the mad scientist camouflaged by swaths of white bandages encasing his face and head like a cipher in a black suit, bowler hat, white gloves, and dark glasses, traveling between rented rooms and time dimensions ensured his escape into invisibility. Like a specter, this strange incognito figure slowly emerged as a magical mouthpiece prognosticating baffling events.
Center stage in the Victorian drawing room’s theatrical set, a large standing open traveler’s chest exposed disheveled clothing spilling out of open drawers and strewn about in disarray. Beside it a cabinet contained strangely shaped bottles of specially prepared concoctions. Old medical textbooks littered the floor. Ghostly effusions reminiscent of the mysterious fog in old movies enveloped the scene emitted by an offstage smoke machine.
On top of the chest of drawers a large, antique, phantom radio with a gridded gold screen was illumined by explosions of theatrical light and multimedia projections that transformed it into a secret invention, a weird time machine that simulated futuristic TV and computer spewing flickering disembodied images and out-of-time apparitions also suggestive of the Internet—that most infamous time machine!
The challenge was the voice, and voices—Alex was used to taking on and slipping in and out of characters and identities, but this role required the anonymous, disembodied mad scientist interposed with the real author, his double—an unusually challenging role.
Alex used a strange, gravelly, and sharply emphatic British accent that made the sinister figure’s concealment all the more secretive and intriguing. In contrast, he found old online footage of Wells speaking that enabled Alex to impersonate his distinctively genteel, ironically high-pitched voice.
In the famous scene in which the Invisible Man is finally confronted by the town’s infuriated citizens demanding to know who he really was, a barrage of syncopated mirages of the loud angry mob projected on video monitors and screens created a cacophonous Sturm und Drang din to mirror the suspenseful dramaturgy of the emerging ghostly author.
Finally forced to disclose himself by taking off his masquerade, the stranger revealed more than an invisible identity. Doffing his hat and dramatically unwinding the bandages, the Invisible Man’s headless and dissembling body continued to speak, writhe, and gesticulate. With evocative lighting and nervous scratchy music, the mesmerizing disappearing act created a bizarre theatrical prestidigitation.
Some performances were more intense than others, like ghosts on the wire giving the dramatic trappings an added edge. Even while he was researching the part Alex began having unusual experiences. Often he felt like he was getting messages and fielding voices from the beyond. When he told the director, Kevin McCarney said, “Go for it—this show can use as much strangeness as possible.”
Kevin was especially excited about the production, because he was finally the lead director at the new National Public Theater on Astor Place in downtown Manhattan’s sprawling, adventuresome neighborhood of cutting-edge performance venues and Off-Off-Broadway theaters. For almost a century a national public theater had been an unrealized dream and the Public was finally thriving following the long and difficult pandemic shutdown.
But like air being sucked out of a tire, Alex knew there was always a letdown after a play’s run, especially after weeks of rehearsals and intense, adrenaline-fueled performances. Alex had a little money in the bank but he had to get busy. Just as he began worrying again, the phone rang.