Taking a sci-fi tale to the stage in 'Bellona'

Jay Scheib in his MIT studio. His multimedia work “Bellona, Destroyer of Cities,’’ based on the novel “Dhalgren,’’ is part of the Emerging America festival. Jay Scheib in his MIT studio. His multimedia work “Bellona, Destroyer of Cities,’’ based on the novel “Dhalgren,’’ is part of the Emerging America festival. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — The first time director Jay Scheib read “Dhalgren,’’ Samuel R. Delany’s cult-classic science fiction novel, it took him nearly a year. The dense and looping text sprawls to almost 900 pages in the original edition, but length was not the obstacle. The speed bump he kept hitting was something he had thrown in his own path: the decision, made before he had ever finished the book, that he would adapt it into a theater piece.

“This is maybe a terrible admission, but it’s sort of how I read a lot of things — because you read it very differently when what you’re planning to do is to engage with the material,’’ Scheib, a boyish 41, said on a recent afternoon in his studio at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is an associate professor of theater.

Finally, Scheib skipped to the last chapter — “which kind of blew my mind,’’ he said. It also explained to him much that he hadn’t grasped about Delany’s 1975 novel, set in a post-cataclysmic urban landscape once inhabited by millions, now peopled by only a few thousand stragglers. Bellona is the name of the American city in “Dhalgren’’; it is also the name of the Roman goddess of war.

“Bellona, Destroyer of Cities,’’ the theater piece Scheib made from the book, opens tonight at the Institute of Contemporary Art, part of the weekend-long Emerging America festival. A highly physical, multimedia production, it embraces the issues of race and sexuality that fuel Delany’s labyrinthine narrative. “It’s rated R,’’ Scheib said.

“Bellona,’’ which premiered a year ago at the Kitchen in New York, is the second work in a science fiction trilogy Scheib is developing. He has had the cooperation of Delany, the 69-year-old “Dhalgren’’ author, throughout the creation of “Bellona.’’

“The fundamental dramatic structure of ‘Dhalgren’ is to take ordinary society and then remove a large chunk of it and see what is left,’’ Delany explained by phone from New York. “Money is one of the things that is removed in ‘Dhalgren,’ and a certain kind of social ability to enforce social laws is also removed. What will happen?

“The quick assumption many people have is that we’ll, you know, devolve into chaos. Well, I think that takes a little bit of time, and I think people bring their expectations of what life should be like even into a situation like that.’’

For Delany, who has already seen “Dhalgren’’ adapted into an opera, allowing Scheib to make theater from it was partly a matter of aesthetic curiosity. Even so, he wants to make sure that the result is recognizable to him, that it jibes with what his 31-year-old self was trying to communicate in the novel that he spent five years writing.

Scheib is scheduled to take part in a post-show conversation tomorrow night with Delany, whom he called a very tough and very good critic. When the novelist gives him notes after a rehearsal, Scheib said, he puts 75 percent of them directly into the show — and yes, he added, that is a high proportion.

At MIT, where he made “Dhalgren’’ the subject of a course he taught, Scheib inhabits a studio that was once a squash court. Its high wooden walls are covered with photographs and blueprints from theater and opera productions he has made in this country and in Europe.

Video cameras and monitors are scattered throughout the space, the tools of a director whose work borrows from an array of disciplines and typically combines live action with video. Scheib’s “This Place Is a Desert,’’ seen at the ICA in 2007, was one such excursion.

“I keep threatening, like, oh, ‘The next couple things that I do will have no media whatsoever: no sound, one light cue,’ ’’ said Scheib, who last month won a Guggenheim Fellowship that is meant to support the completion of his trilogy.

But listen to him talk about people’s diminishing attention spans — he prefers to think of them as faster attention spans — or about the usefulness of video in the context of black-box theater architecture, and the absence of cameras onstage seems like an empty threat for the moment.

“For me, a video frame is essentially just another proscenium,’’ he said. “It’s a way of getting a hold once again of the visual aspect of performance, in a way which makes use of a vocabulary which culturally we know so well.’’

Using that technology in “Bellona,’’ Scheib lends a new, 21st-century form to “Dhalgren,’’ a work that its author described as “very much a novel of the 1970s.’’

“As many people have said, there’s nothing that dates faster than science fiction,’’ Delany said. “And the fact that ‘Dhalgren’ has actually managed to intrigue people for this long I think makes me a very, very lucky writer.’’

That it has not dated, Scheib said, is because the questions it raises about race and sexuality are still with us.

“I think this novel should be no longer relevant, but it is,’’ he said. “It could’ve been written this morning.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at

BELLONA, DESTROYER OF CITIES At: Institute of Contemporary Art, through May 15. Tickets: $25, $22 students. 617-478-3103,