In 1873, after nearly 10 years of research and writing, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen finished his epic play "Emperor and Galilean," a tragedy in the classical style about the last pagan emperor of Rome.
Owing to its length, scope and other limitations of style and structure, the play, which Ibsen considered among his finest, did not see a major English-language production until last year, when London's National Theatre produced a vastly pared-down adaptation by Ben Power.
But long before the National's production was a blip on the international theater scene, local playwright Neil Wechsler was hard at work on his own, remarkably different adaptation of the play. The fruits of his labor, along with those of director David Oliver and a tireless cast of 10, are on display in Torn Space Theatre's production of the play. The show opened Thursday night in the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle on Fillmore Avenue.
The play centers on the story of Julian the Apostate, the deeply flawed philosopher and eventual emperor intent on setting the world's clock back to a time before Christianity, when the Greco-Roman gods ruled the daily lives and interactions of citizens. As Wechsler put it, Julian (played by Adriano Gatto) essentially wanted to fight against a "shrinking world" and return to society its long-lost sense of wonder -- an impossible task he attempted at great cost to himself and many citizens of his empire.
"This is arguably the most crucial point in the history of Western civilization," Wechsler said. "We're dealing with the fourth century A.D., but it wasn't until then that Christianity became so big, and that transition from the Greco-Roman Gods [was completed]. This was kind of like the final stand."
For Oliver, the paradox at the heart of the play, along with the opportunity to work with Wechsler, drew him to the project.
"Part of what draws me to anything is human dilemma and paradox. Just the fact that you have this energy between these two major religions, one being born and the other dying," Oliver said.
The fact that two separate adaptations and productions of Ibsen's long-forgotten play were in development nearly simultaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic is entirely coincidental. When Wechsler and Oliver found out about this in the middle of their own script revisions to Ibsen's work, "we wept for about three minutes" before getting on with the business of hammering out their own version of the play.
They had reason to weep, if only briefly. Wechsler, who was selected by Edward Albee as the winner of the prestigious Yale Drama Award in 2008 for his play "Grenadine," carries the kind of cachet no other working local playwright matches. Hopes for this Buffalo-bred adaptation to catch the attention of larger venues may now be dashed against the National's well-received (and far more grand) production.
But Wechsler and Oliver aren't worried. The Torn Space production, which uses a script Wechsler meticulously whittled down to 2 1/2 hours with Oliver's help, will thrive on its simplicity. Oliver called the two productions "night and day."
"The only way to do something this epic is to go in the opposite direction and do it as simply and straightforwardly as can be. So that's what we're doing," Oliver said. "It's actor-driven and seemed that it always had to be."
Torn Space will feature three guest speakers who will give post-show talks Wednesday (theater scholar Marvin Carlson), March 15 (Wechsler) and March 22 ("Emperor and Galilean" translator Brian Johnston).
For Wechsler, the journey of the play's protagonist speaks directly to today's changing society, in which technology has managed to make the world seem perhaps smaller than it ever has and a genuine sense of wonder and connection much more difficult to find.
"Isn't this the goal of art, to take those courageous leaps?" Wechsler said. "We can actually try to re-create the world. That's the goal of art, isn't it? And there's always the slim possibility of success."
WHAT: "Emperor and Galilean"
WHEN: Through March 25
WHERE: Torn Space Theatre, 612 Fillmore Ave.