04/12/2013 06:10 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

Here Now: The Actor's Gang's Heart of Darkness

The essence of theatre is wonder. The Actor's Gang understands this. And so does Brian T. Finney, the actor who performs his own stunning one-man adaptation of the Heart of Darkness, at the Ivy Substation Theatre in Culver City. This classic novel has been tailored to fit our sleek time. Every rich line has its place, on the voyage Keythe Farley has directed.

There have been several versions of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Most of all, perhaps, are Conrad's very own: The "final" manuscript was published in 1898: Conrad continued to edit, republish, revise and reconsider. He produced the most consistent and polished edition, in 1921. (And we whine about rewriting.)

(To Note: recent variations: Apocalypse Now, where Marlon Brando played the demonic Kurtz and a documentary called the Heart of Darkness.)

And now, here's Brian T. Finney. He is Marlowe; the narrator, the voyager. He becomes every character. You need no more cast to feel the story. And you will never picture Marlowe in any other image again.

The stage of this small theatre in Culver City is empty, dark. We see the looming outlines of three sails.

Tim Robbins, The creative director of The Actor's Gang, welcomes the opening night audience with the glow of a 10-year-old kid who is really excited to show you what his buddies have made here. Everything the Actor's Gang does has the expectation of invention.

Now through the darkness you see a man crouching on each side of the stage in rough 19th century dockworkers' boots. This is foggy London. Pre-dawn. Heartbeats echo through the theatre, (even louder than our own).

A man you've never seen (and will never forget) arrives on stage, an agitated presence with a huge story to tell you. Here's Brian Finney, as the young chap, Charlie Marlowe showing us the map of the world projected across the sails. He points to a giant continent: "The empty place on the map is therefore where I must go."

The dockworkers adjust the sails. We see clouds over ocean; hear the lapping of water. The sound effects, the music all designed by the composer Mark Nichols, astonish, and place us in each scene, hitching up suspense, and tension.

Marlowe never stops moving, becomes the characters he encounters; accents in place. Now and then the dockworkers set up a table, flip a chair over to become a part of a ship, whatever is required, it's subtle, convincing, never distracting. The sails are lit with seaside glory as Mr. Marlowe sets off on his voyage to Africa.

He has no wardrobe changes, only this curious twist of pale cactus gauze. He shifts it about into a grand ascot for his meeting with the Colonial Authority, wipes his face, makes it into a shawl to huddle under, or uses it to wipe blood from his boots. Ingenious as a child at play with its sucky blanket. (Are we all born performers?) This actor surely is a grand editor, and a choreographer as well. Each move he makes is part of the story.

What is important here, with all the dimensions of sound and lighting, and the wardrobe of giant images projected on the sails' adaptive canvas, is the threatening swell of fear. There are serpentine ripples of the Congo, and then, with a horrid clattering, we see giant tusks yanked from elephants' faces.

This is the story of the rape of the Ivory Coast. One will never again be amused at the jaunty use of "ivories" when playing the piano. Not after seeing the images on sails of tall black men marching in chains. We hear gunshots. The gaping holes the men dig are where they will fall, linked forever, left to die.

Conrad's work was once considered racist, written in the attitude of his time. But when you see it presented here, it is a story about our most horrific heritage: the destruction of ourselves; of our greatest treasure -- our planet, its people.

"A philanthropic idea," Marlowe reflects as he sees the tall men, "gives the native's something to do."

Marlowe offers a dying man a biscuit, "He held the biscuit," Marlowe tells us, "As he died." Then Marlowe reconsiders, "I was to come acquainted with a pitiless folly. In the demoralization of the land Kurtz kept up his backbone," Marlowe cases the audience, "That's backbone." There's an uneasy laugh. Finney does irony with astute valor.

As the sails darken with jungle leaves, jungle sounds surround us, Marlowe leaves for a two hundred mile search. He will find the source of all this horror: The ghastly, madman, eerie (is he real?) Kurtz, who runs this grim Belgian business. Marlowe describes this trek, "Tramp: Camp, cook, sleep, strike camp. March, camp, cook, sleep, and strike camp..."

This tour de force Mr. Finney has created declares, expresses, ponders, and like Charlie Marlowe's journey, never stands still, even as we see the transformation of his character, the strangling of his rage with the piece of gauze in his hands.

When Marlowe encounters Kurtz (even more monstrous perhaps than the monster King Leopold, who, unlike Kurtz, never saw the horrors dug out under his command.) The sails reflect fiery, filthy smoke, "loyal to the nightmare of my choice. This is a vapour belly exhaled by the Earth."

We watch the sweat gleam real, darkening Finney's ruddy European curls; and, when at the end, we hear the haunting sound of death. That echoing roar of gargling pebbles. We feel in our bones the reality of Kurtz's last word.

How many of us in fact do know that 11 million were killed under Belgium's rule. And six million have been killed in the last 10 years, digging out the Congo's rich resources for our computers.

At the end of the play, Marlowe has returned to meet the young woman intended for Kurtz, who still loves him. She wants to know his last word. And Marlowe is weeping with a glow -- "I lay down the ghosts of Kurtz's with a lie," he tells us.

"She knew it. She was sure. She was weeping."

And Marlowe is weeping with a glow -- "I lay down the ghosts of Kurtz's lists with a lie."

We see Marlowe sitting quietly in the Buddha position we saw him in early in the play. He has experienced the notion of "being caught up in the essence of the incredible," he speaks to us, "we live as we dream: alone."

We guess he has come to some peace. And our imaginations are refreshed. We have been at sea, shot in jungles, sailed along the Congo, all emotions from grief, outrage, horror to despair have been wrenched out, refreshed by sea air, excellent language and a great story. Not a customary experience.

As we gathered to celebrate this enlightened exploration of elevated evil we discussed, "What did Kurtz really mean with that last word?" And we each knew our own answer was true.

That word, its expression here, woke me with a jolt the next morning. I fear it will again. Such is the impact of this play.