Back when evolution was a scary new idea—unlike now, when in certain circles it’s a scary old idea—H.G. Wells wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau, about a scientist’s misguided efforts to fast-track assorted critters up the biological ladder to human status with bizarre anatomical experiments: fabricating dog-men and puma-women, among other oddities. The novel splices together Victorian-era anxieties about scientific overreach and imperialist ideology—were inhabitants of less-British societies also less “human”?—to create cautionary social allegory. The hybrid monsters first worship Moreau like a god, then rebel against him, plummeting back to a state of brute nature.
John P. McEneny’s new storytelling-theater–style adaptation of the book—which he also directs—efficiently renders Wells’s narrative, but the result is more period curio than compelling recovery (the production recently played 59E59’s East to Edinburgh Festival). The tightly choreographed ensemble of enthusiastic body-actors trades off the main roles, adopting lurching postures to illustrate the island’s freaky inhabitants. Much choral recitation and stylized breathing ensues, giving the piece a ritual feel.
But despite the parable’s timely resonances—science hasn’t stopped besieging old verities about human nature—McEneny makes no effort to reframe the novel’s 19th-century debates, keeping Doc Moreau marooned on that remotest of islands: the literary past.