Orson Scott Card, Scott Brick, Aaron Johnston, Emily Janice Card, Posing as People - Three Stories, Three Plays (Subterranean Press, 2005)

Adaptations for the stage or screen are often problematical, as witness the critical brickbats thrown several years ago over the relative merits of the screen renderings of The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Stage adaptations are subject to much the same criteria for examination. What is most interesting, for those who do take interest in such things, is the circumstance in which the adaptations are done with the willing connivance or, in the case of Posing As People, more or less at the instigation of the author of the original story.

One advantage that the three playwrights had in this endeavor was that they had long familiarity with Card, whom they all count as a long-time colleague (Card's interest in the theatre is a longstanding one, as longstanding as his fascination with science fiction) and his work. The resulting plays are more than a little interesting, and in some cases, stripped of Card's tendency toward digression (as enlightening and engaging as that can be), have a greater impact than the original stories.

"Clap Hands and Sing," by Scott Brick, uses the theatricality to great effect, distilling Card's story of the same name to an acerbic, often pungent interchange between Charlie, the (at a minimum) octogenarian inventor of the psychic time travel device THIEF, and Jock, his android attendant, centering around Charlie's own trip back in time to relive -- and hopefully undo, in spite of laws to the contrary -- what he now thinks of as a mistake. Aaron Johnston, in adapting "Lifeloop," a brief drama that takes off from the phenomenon of reality TV (although Card's story was originally published in 1978, giving him points for prescience), makes some radical changes in the story and also plays much more with the ambiguity inherent in the very idea of reality TV. Emily Janice Card reduces "Sepulchre of Songs" to a very few key elements that possess great potency and some brittle dialogue that truly sparkles in a story that calls to mind a dark variation on Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang.

The illumination in this collection comes from the assembly of plays, stories, and commentaries by the authors all in one volume, along with a set of 4 CDs of the plays in performance. Aside from the quality of the works themselves -- and the plays are uniformly excellent, although Card acknowledges some weaknesses in the stories with which I have to agree -- there is the sheer contrast between the means of narrative fiction and of the stage that throws into sharp relief just what "adaptation" is all about. Especially illuminating is Johnston's commentary on the changes he made in "Lifeloop" and the rationale behind them, which provides a good glimpse of the artist at work.

Another good example is Card's relation of the way Scott Brick approached "Clap Hands and Sing."

. . . most of the dialogue was between a very old man who hardly moved . . . and a computer. Dull! Boring! Nothing to see!

Unlike me, however, Scott thought of what now seems the obvious solution. Not a computer, an android: a character that can be played by an actor. And then when he had the further insight of having the android become the young version of the old man during the time travel sequence, I was blown away. He used highly theatrical techniques to illuminate the story in ways that narrative fiction could not.

And there you have it. This volume may have started off as a nice "compare / contrast" compilation, but what really turned out to be is a marvelously illuminating look at the ways in which adaptations can become something new, taking on a life of their own, even though they keep the spirit of the story from which they arose.

My one disappointment is that the CDs are not DVDs. From Card's remarks on the staging of these plays, I think a visual record would have been perfect. (Quite aside from my own impatience with being read to -- the major reason audiobooks do not appear in my library -- I think that being able to see the plays, with that additional degree of abstraction cum reality, would have made an unbeatable experience.) I am a great admirer of those writers who can utilize the economies of the stage in narrative fiction. With this volume, I have seen how writers can translate the richness of narrative fiction into strong theater. How can you lose?

[Robert M. Tilendis]