Review: The Otherworld Theatre's "A Princess of Mars"

Several years ago, when I was working overnights at a hotel in downtown Chicago, I read a number of books that were available for free through Google Books, including Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars (as well as several of the sequels). They really are fun books - old-fashioned, yes, but with a delightful sense of joy and adventure, and I was surprised by how much I did enjoy them. A few years ago Disney did an adaptation, called John Carter, which I also liked a lot; unfortunately, it was a massive flop, which put the kibosh on any potential sequels.

I was excited when I saw a recent notice requesting reviewers to come see a new stage adaptation of A Princess of Mars. The company, called The Otherworld Theatre, bills itself as the only science fiction and fantasy theater in Chicago. They're received good reviews for some of their other geek friendly productions, and while I haven't been to very many plays, I jumped at the opportunity to see this show.

John Carter (Elliott Sowards), a deserter from the Confederate Army, is tracked down by the army and wounded while evading capture. He finds himself transported to Mars, and is captured by the warlike, green-skinned Tharks. He is nursed back to health and tutored in the Martian language by a gentle healer, Sola (Julia Rigby). When the Tharks capture Dejah Thoris (Mary-Kate Arnold), the princess of Helium, he risks his life to defend her. He discovers that in the Martian atmosphere he is strong and fast, and his strength and daring win him the admiration of the Tharks. 

When the leader of the Tharks, Tal Haljus (Bennett Decker Bottero), and his mother, Sarkoja (Elizabeth MacDougald), move to execute Dejah, he and Dejah escape with the help of Solah and Tars Tarkis (Tim Larson), a general of the Tharks. They are rescued by another Heliumite, Kantos Kon (Shaun Hayden), but soon discover that they aren't safe at all - an enemy of the Heliumites, Sab Than (Michael Bullaro), has taken control of her city and is using arcane means to control its citizens. Dejah is forced to agree to marry Sab Than, who orders John Carter killed. In order to save Dejah, Helium, and Mars itself, John must rally the Tharks to help Helium - traditionally considered an enemy.

John and Dejah win the day, and live happily - not ever after, but for several years. However, after the birth of their son, circumstances compel John to return to Earth, leaving Dejah and his son to continue on without him.

Got all that? Good. Onto the review.

To start with the positive, I think there were some nice things about the way that they adapted the material. In Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (the titular princess), exists to have things happen to her. In this play, she is very much an active character, passionately advocating for herself and her homeland. She's a fighter, and the ecological disaster that she's working to avert feels frighteningly relevant.

It was also surprisingly funny. The source material, from what I remember, wasn't heavy on humor, but there was something almost Whedon-esque about some of the banter between characters (particularly when anyone was interacting with the main villain, Sab Than, who was a standout to me; he had a kind of b-movie haminess that really worked for me in this situation), which drew quite a few chuckles from the crowd. I thought the play was at its best when it really leaned into that arch, wry sense of humor. 

You can certainly tell that a lot of love went into this production. The budget is very small, but they've clearly worked hard to move past those budgetary limitations, using their small space in inventive ways and using lighting and musical cues to great effect in the absence of larger sets. 

I'm going to be straightforward about a couple of things. I think A Princess of Mars was a very ambitious story to adapt, given their budgetary constraints. I understand why they might have chosen it - it's a known property, which probably helps to get butts in seats, but it's also in the public domain, so I imagine they probably didn't have to pay licensing fees (or whatever they're called, I can't say I know much about this sort of thing) in order to adapt it. Do I think that was a good choice? I'm not sure I can say yes to that.

A big part of what makes John Carter special, and what makes those books so fun, is the nature of an Earth man being transported to Mars, and suddenly having all of these superhero-like abilities. They tipped their hats to that in a couple of scenes, but it was largely an informed ability, with the other characters having to tell us how strong he is, or that he could jump over a wall, and then later using some kind of device to nullify his supposed abilities. I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed by that - it would hardly have changed the story to have set it on Earth. I think it would have helped if they'd done a bit of lampshade hanging, playing his distinct lack of any special abilities for laughs instead of playing it straight.

There were other ways that the show suffered from lack of funds. It might sound a bit superficial, but some of the costumes were actually really distracting - Kantos Kon's poorly fitting, shiny, blue polyester pajamas, for example, were an entirely unintentional source of humor. The masks worn by the Tharks weren't bad, but a little bit of green makeup would have made them feel more like a part of the character, and less like looking at someone wearing a rubber mask.

That said, on the whole, I did find the show rather charming, especially when it leaned into its goofy humor and b-movie aesthetic. Some of the actors seemed to get that - Sab Than, a minor character who was something like a prosecutor during Dejah Thoris trial, Dejah Thoris herself at times - while others played it more straight. That doesn't mean that they needed to go into outright parody, but a little scenery chewing can go far in a production like this.

If you've read the original and enjoyed it, and are generally well-disposed towards sci-fi and fantasy, I think you'll probably enjoy this. Despite some notable flaws, I found that I really did, and I think that I will keep an eye out for some of their other productions in the future.

I received complimentary tickets to this production. My opinions are my own.