By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Writing in his travelogue of industrial misery, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell admitted to being repulsed by the physique of the typical Englishman with his “lank ugly hair growing down his legs and the backs of his arms and in an ugly patch on his chest.” Compared to Asians, Orwell found, “the white man is generally ill-shaped, and when he grows fat he bulges in improbable places.” These observations were 20th-century reverb of Jonathan Swift’s own nausea provoked by the Western body — and body politic — as he expressed it in Gulliver’s Travels, his 1726 satire about a traveler to “remote nations of the world.” Consider his description of the Yahoos, the savage creatures that Lemuel Gulliver encounters in the land of the Houyhnhnms.
“Their heads and breasts,” Swift wrote, “were covered with a thick hair, some frizzled, and others lank; they had beards like goats, and a long ridge of hair down their backs, and the fore parts of their legs and feet .?.?.” The Yahoos are all the more hideous, Gulliver realizes, because they are mirror images of humanity. Even though Swift’s book is political from start to finish, the Yahoos — a term now used to denote the irrational mob — are the creatures in Gulliver’s Travels that push modern liberals’ fear buttons, whereas it is the tiny Lilliputians who grab the attention of the connoisseurs of spectacle and whimsy. It is also the Lilliputians, not the Yahoos, who reign over the Actors’ Gang production of Joshua Zeller’s adaptation of Swift’s story.
Zeller and director P. Adam Walsh have created a compact retelling that packs all of Swift’s bawdy and scatological wit into a 90-minute, very adult show that, perversely, can nonetheless be presented to older children. The action unfolds against a backdrop of massive, colored rags that may suggest national flags or the sails of doomed ships. Gulliver (the very likable Keythe Farley), who, except for his wife Mary (Molly O’Neill), is the only character costumed by Shannon A. Kennedy in contemporary 18th-century clothing, is a ship’s surgeon and eventual sea captain. He is first washed ashore on Lilliput, a nation of homunculi who befriend Gulliver and harness his enormous strength to subdue their great political enemy, the island of Blefuscu. (The two sides have been at war for years over the correct way to break open an egg.)
Audiences traditionally love the Lilliput story, which forms, after all, the commercial heart of the comic-book and movie-cartoon editions of Gulliver’s Travels. There is an endearing appeal about the tale of an average man being declared a semideity by tiny people and the focusing of all that is noble in said man even when he’s offered the chance to behave very badly. Walsh’s version wins us over through the warmth of his staging, which incorporates John Burton’s shadow puppetry along with lighting and sound effects (by François-Pierre Couture and Jason Tuttle, respectively) to illustrate Gulliver’s prodigious size — including the enormousness of his excrement, which drops from the skies on Lilliputians like fecal boulders.
As visually arresting as the remaining three nations are, the evening never quite matches the magic or the level of human folly of the Lilliput scene, which may explain why we don’t feel the trip is exactly over by play’s end. From Lilliput, Gulliver ventures to its opposite, Brobdingnag, the land of the giants, where he becomes a sideshow freak and a plaything of an empty-headed queen, before arriving on the flying island of Laputa, populated by academics engaged in the most useless formulations and studies. The show comes visually back to life here, with the appearance of Laputians whose heads are wrapped with pulsating glow sticks — indicating thoughts that are communicated telepathically.
Until now, Zeller and Walsh have shown admirable restraint in refraining from translating Swift’s barbs about religious and political intolerance to modern circumstances. Inevitably, perhaps, instead of the scenes in which Gulliver beholds the spirits of history’s immortals, we get a history-of-the-world video, ending with the image of George W. Bush, although, I suppose, we’re free to not hiss. Then, finally, we arrive in the land of the Houyhnhnms, the wise, saintly horses who are served by the unruly Yahoos.
George Orwell, the despiser of hairy bodies, was one of those people who seem to have a love-hate view of Swift. More important, Orwell incorporated aspects of Gulliver’s Travels even as he dismembered its author for being “incurious” and “reactionary.” Swift’s attempts to invent doggerel names and words would be refined by Orwell, who created Newspeak, Oceania’s official language in 1984;Laputa, Swift’s flying island representing England, becomes Airstrip One in the same Orwell novel, and the former’s permanent war with Blefuscu matches the perennial combat of 1984’s three superstates. If the past is prologue to the future, then Swift’s “remote nations” foretold Orwell’s great dystopia of the 20th century. No wonder he found that in the early chapters of Gulliver’s Travels,“every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time.”