Trust the Actor

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The voice strikes you like some guttural, graveled, subterranean machine.

It belongs to actor Brian T. Finney as he brings to life Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a one-man show at the Actors' Gang.

Even with a slightly dodgy set of mutton chops, Mr. Finney draws us into his tale almost instantly. There's something about the resonance of his voice, not just its power, but it's experience. It's a bit like an old pair of work boots: ragged around the edges but you never question that they can get the job done.

For an actor, that’s no small feat when the job is bringing Conrad's novel to life against the backdrop of Apocalypse, Now or your own literary memories.

The stage is empty save for three poles, or masts, upstage. Hung from these are white sails that swing into place to create the image of a ship and, conveniently, a series of projection screens. At one moment the sails are filled with images of a sunset, in the next faded old maps or the dense foliage of the jungle.

At first this setting seems minimal and clever. The trouble is these sails pivot to form different angles so as the story travels from London to Brussels, two stage hands (one with a pith helmet) scurry on to adjust the sails. Into the doctor's office, another pivot. New setting, new sail.

What at first felt simple and elegant quickly begins to feel fussy. I can imagine if a lesser actor were bringing this tale to life, you might need this crutch to help the audience differentiate place. But Mr. Finney has no trouble painting the scene. After the fourth or fifth needless adjustment, I just wanted the damn things to stay put.

In my memory, the striking thing about Heart of Darkness, as a novel, was it's unrelenting drive. I felt propelled through the pages, on my own journey up the river. By breaking this flow in the play, by providing transitions from section to section, the direction actually gets in the way. It's as if they didn't trust that Conrad's words alone could do the work.

When we finally reach the voice of Kurtz, this problem is well . . . amplified.

Is there a literary character whose voice we are more anxious to hear than Mr. Kurtz? We're primed throughout the journey with an expectation of his words, his tone. Who is this madman or genius? The very structure of the story hangs on his words.

So when we finally make it, the voice is . . . a recording piped through the speakers?

You can appreciate the temptation. Kurtz must be powerful, his voice disarming. But rather than have the gifted actor, the one who's already brought a half dozen characters to life in different dialects, rather than allow him to bring Kurtz to life - Mr. Finney is reduced to playing along with a sound cue: "The horror! The horror!"

It's a testament to Brian Finney's chops as an actor, his command of the language and the stage, that in spite of these distractions, his performance shouldn't be missed.

Heart of Darkness plays at The Actors' Gang in Culver City through May 18.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: Brian T. Finney in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness at the Actors' Gang