The COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on many things in our lives as we have had to learn how to reinvent the way we interact, learn and live in a world separated by at least six feet. One casualty of the pandemic was live theater. I have seen many shows this past year of varying quality that try to keep theater going through this troubled time. Of all of these, the Brandeis Theater Department’s production of “The Lathe of Heaven” was by far the best theatrical performance that utilizes alternative means of socially distanced storytelling. Despite the many limitations and challenges brought on by the pandemic, “The Lathe of Heaven” managed to turn these limitations into strengths to create a truly unique theatrical experience.
“The Lathe of Heaven” was originally adapted by Natsu Onoda Power from the Ursula K. Le Guin novel of the same name. It is very difficult to explain the plot of the novel, but very generally it involves a man whose dreams can seemingly alter reality. Brandeis’s production, directed by Isaiah M. Wooden (TA), does an excellent job of portraying the fluidity of reality through a combination of fantastic performances by the cast and creative production design.
The performance is broken up into scenes featuring the main character George Orr, portrayed by Pierce Robinson ’22, during therapy sessions with the ambitious Dr. William Haber to try and cure his unique dream condition. In between these scenes are segments that indicate the various changes in reality brought on by Orr’s dreams. Robinson gives a frighteningly stellar performance as a man losing touch with reality, or perhaps in this particular case a man trying to make sense of his reality. The main conflict revolves around Dr. William Haber, who manipulates Orr’s dream to enrich himself rather than cure them. Haber is played by Anderson Stinson III ’21, who portrays Haber as both charismatic and complex. Stinson’s performance captures Dr. Haber’s gradual shift from charismatic charmer to a power-mad egomaniac as he continues to abuse his patient’s mysterious power. In contrast to Haber, Heather Lelache, played by Tamara Tarwoe ’21, is both a love interest for Orr and an opposing influence to that of Dr. Haber. Tarwoe’s calm and controlled performance as Lelache is a perfect counter to Stinson’s more impulsive and energetic portrayal of Haber.
These three primary actors interact both with each other and the audience. When in a scene together, the show makes clever use of split screens and backgrounds to have characters interact with each other in a believable way. I really appreciate how the actors maintained eye contact during the split screen. This eye contact is key to selling the narrative without ruining the audience’s immersion by reminding them they are essentially watching two clips that have been edited together. At other points, however, this production actually uses jarring editing techniques to enhance the audience’s sense of disorientation. Usually, fourth wall breaks are jokes made directly and consciously to the audience, but this show breaks the fourth wall to convey an eroding sense of reality
In some parts of the show, the actors directly address the audiences and break the fourth wall, in contrast to when they maintain eye contact across split screens. Rather than ruining the audience’s immersion, these fourth wall breaks actually meld into the show’s greater narrative. The audience is first greeted by a masked doctor asking questions seemingly directed at the audience while holding a flashlight at the camera, although we later learn the doctor is speaking to Orr. This doctor is actually multiple doctors portrayed by three different actresses, Jaramie Cataldo ’24, Sophie Lee ’21 and Abigail Roberts ’24 who all serve as the show’s narrators and a plethora of other unique roles in the production. In this first instance, all three are playing the doctor as the camera shifts between them between their lines. The clever camera work combined with the brightness of the flashlight results in a disorienting effect that makes the audience question what they are seeing, despite the fact that the actors are seemingly addressing them directly. This simple effect in the first few moments of the show not only gives the audience a glimpse into the disoriented mind of George Orr, but is also an effect that cannot be easily replicated in a theater setting.
The show uses other elements to denote its more fluid interpretation of reality. Sometimes, scenes and dialogue will be repeated but slightly altered to denote changes in reality. Other minor details, like alterations to a character’s costume, are also used to showcase how Orr is changing his world through his dreams. For example, Dr. Haber’s increasingly expensive-looking apparel is a visual clue to the audience that he is profiting from manipulating Orr’s dreams. The three narrators often reappear in brief segments to further disorient the audience, in one case giving them a quiz involving the altered reality, which included a question about when the book was originally published, 1971.
In any other play with any other story, this kind of fourth wall-breaking would immediately ruin my sense of immersion. However, this show’s dedication to altering the audience’s perception of reality through superb acting, clever camera work and meta commentary results in a production that makes full use of its unique medium to immerse the audience in a complex yet compelling sci-fi narrative. Despite the many limitations on theater during the pandemic, “The Lathe of Heaven” turned what could have been many weaknesses into strengths. Although the show uses things like camera tricks and clever editing that would be impractical or difficult to replicate in a traditional theater setting, it doesn’t rely on these things as a crutch. Instead the show embraces new ideas and elements, while still feeling like a theatrical performance rather than a Zoom meeting with actors. As a result, “The Lathe of Heaven” proves that theater isn’t dead, but adapting.