The Horror! “Darkness” is wonderfully ridiculous

At the height of Victorian imperialism, novelist Joseph Conrad was over it. Angry, furious, he took aim at Europe’s most brutal empire — the King of Belgium’s personal reign of terror in the Congo.

In Heart of Darkness (1899), a man named Marlow accepts the job of finding Kurtz, a Belgian colonial agent who’s disappeared at a remote Congo River station. Marlow’s jungle quest also takes him into the darkness of the human heart — as manifested mainly by the Europeans he meets, who are more and more casually vicious and violent the farther they are from civilization’s constraints.

Marlow does find Kurz, who’s “gone native” — even putting punished workers’ heads on pikes around his hut. Kurz says royal officials won’t interfere, because he always sends lots of ivory. Pressed by Marlow, he finally relents, shouting “The horror! The horror!” and dying, apparently by his own hand.

Conrad’s novel galvanized a campaign that led the Belgian government to strip the colony from the king’s control. But the deep attitudes and self-deceptions Conrad was attacking changed little if at all.

Fast forward 80 years: After the United States spends 20 years and 55,000 lives in a war of empire over Vietnam, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola adapts Heart of Darkness for a trenchant satire, Apocalypse Now (1979). The film, a succes de scandale,  helps lead to the publication of secret war documents and the resignations of high officials.

Taylor Hawthorne, Dan Via (photo: Son of Semele Ensemble)

But how much has really changed, even now? As German playwright Wolfram Lotz sees it, not much. His 2014 radio play, The Ridiculous Darkness, draws on both Conrad’s tale and Coppola’s exaggerated satire to attack the ways colonialism — and its underlying racial and cultural attitudes — have survived.

Now, Son of Semele, one of LA’s most daring and most professional companies, has adapted Lotz’s radio play for the stage. The result:  a highly visual, madly absurd comedy that makes you wince while you laugh.

The actors (Taylor Hawthorne, Dan Via, Sarah Rosenberg, Ashley Steed, and Alex Wells) play their often unhooked characters with intense belief.  And they work with Semele’s signature harmony, monitoring each other like acrobats.  Meanwhile, director Matthew McCray keeps it all moving (through tiny spaces) like Alice in Wonderland‘s caucus race.

Hawthorne starts us off with an engaging turn as two Somali pirates. Then Via and Steed hijack the story, taking us up the Hindu Kush River (“You’ll say it’s a mountain range, not a river — but I’ve been there!”) into “the jungles of Afghanistan.”

Dan Via, Ashley Steed, Alex Wells, Taylor Hawthorne, Sarah Rosenberg (photo: Son of Semele Ensemble)

This blissful ignorance multiplies as the pair, on a secret mission like Marlow’s, encounter a manic missionary and a loopy Italian UN officer (both Rosenberg), as well as a tribe or two of natives (Hawthorne and Wells, in coconut skirts).  They find the missing officer (Wells again), and the story collapses into a brawl over who’s telling it.

As you may surmise even from this brief sketch, every bit of zaniness has its point.  And the points strike as deep into our blind spots and pretensions as Conrad’s and Coppola’s did in their day. Let’s face it — we are no better at meeting people as equals, letting them say who they are, and leaving them to run their own economies, than King Leopold was.  We just have better weapons.

The Ridiculous Darkness is a fast, funny ride, and you’ll relish the satiric points even as you squirm. Yet it’s not any less serious about its attack than Conrad was. It just sprinkles a generous dose of ground Looking Glass and Brechtian clown makeup into the batter.

Hats off to the team at Son of Semele.  Once again, they persuade us to step off a cliff with them — and hand us parasols to float down on.

A Tech Note: Son of Semele is also known for working magic with its very small space. Scene designer Michael Fitzgerald’s set is an ironic still-life: armchairs with TVs, rolling panels with bamboo curtains and potted plants, all underlining what a fantasy the colonial view of the world is. Video designer Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh fills the screens with cringeworthy jewels of racist iconography from early TV and cartoons; and sound designer John Ruml finds songs and sound bites we blush to recognize.  Vicki Anne Hales and DorothyZhu let us off easier with costumes we can freely laugh about; as does prop master Shen Heckel, who creates a symphony of kitschy objects. Lighting designer Azra King-Abadi leads us among playing areas and moods with swift clarity, and stage manager Beth Scorzato flawlessy navigates a jungle of cues. Several of these are artists I haven’t seen before at Son of Semele; but they handily sustain its tradition of excellence.
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The Ridiculous Darkness, by Wolfram Lotz, directed by Matthew McCray.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
Mondays at 7:00;
through Nov. 12.

Tickets: <www.artful.ly/son-of-semele-ensemble>