Based on the novel by Jack London
Adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn
A committed socialist, Jack London took occasional forays from adventure novels to explore a more politically-charged brand of fiction. The Iron Heel, published in 1907, is an odd alloy of economics and melodrama. The first part of the book is mainly devoted to polemical discourse, with the characters functioning largley as mouthpieces for economic theory (the socialist side, of course, neatly trouncing the opposition in any argument). Once the simmering discontent reaches a boiling point, though, the novel shifts gears, taking on the action-packed tone for which London is celebrated. In Edward Einhorn’s briskly-paced and endearing stage adaptation, the spine of the story remains, while much of the soapboxing has been trimmed, and a few of the cornier lines ( “Social evolution is exasperatingly slow, isn’t it, sweetheart?”) have wisely been excised.
In keeping with the show’s theme, admission is pay-what-you-can, and food and beverages (adult and otherwise) are available for free. The play takes place several hundred years in the future, where a group of historians examine a 20th Century artifact known as The Everhard Manuscript, an account written by a revolutionist named Avis Everhard. Led by Antonia (Yvonne Roen), the scholars don period costumes and act out the events found in the book. Young Avis (Victoria Rulle) lives a sheltered, happy life in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Her father John Cunningham (Kevin Argus) is a university professor and stockholder in the local mill. John enjoys entertaining the intelligentsia, and among his frequent guest is highly idealistic Bishop Morehouse (Craig Anderson). One night an unexpected guest crashes the soiree. Ernest Everhard (Charles J. Ouda) is a strapping, rough-handed working man, who also possesses a world class intellect. He casts an instant spell over Avis, and his dinner table conversation has a lasting impact on the gentlemen as well. Ernest contends that the status quo cannot continue. The oligarchs, led by Mr. Wickson (Trav SD), wallow in splendor while the working class live in deplorable conditions and work inhuman hours. When workers are injured on the job, slick company lawyers cheat them out of compensation. Avis takes a walk on the rough side of town and discovers that Ernest is right. She joins him in matrimony and in rebellion. Cunningham and the bishop also speak out against injustice and are summarily dismissed from their positions and robbed of their holdings. The revolution has begun. What follows is a rousing tale of rigged elections, false identities, prison escapes, bombings, romantic interludes, songs of solidarity , and scenes of terrifying carnage.
Blending sensitivity with defiant zeal, the charismatic Ouda movingly embodies Che Guevara’s assertion that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”. He is matched by Rulle, whose trans-formation from ingénue to hardened warrior forms the arc of the show. The supporting cast displays impressive versatility in multiple parts, breaking character now and then to return to their roles as Antonia and her contentious colleagues.
21 Century audiences are, of course attuned to the hazards of putting collectivist theory into practice. But it’s not hard to understand the sense of economic injustice that motivated London and others of his era to take a stand. In some ways, the rhetoric of the time seems to be making a comeback (substitute “one percent” for “oligarchy” and Ernest Everhard is barely distinguishable from Bernie Sanders). Despite the naiveté of its source material, THE IRON HEEL does seem to have a relevant message: As in London’s time, the American atmosphere is abuzz with the need for change. It’s the solidarity we need to work on.
THE IRON HEEL CONTINUES through September 5, 2016 at 138 South Oxford Place, 138 South Oxford Street (Between Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street) Brooklyn, NY, and other locations. Check website for details. http://www.untitledtheater.com/previous-productions/the-iron-heel.html.