The Emperor Jones – Extraordinary Theater
Serious voodoo is being practiced on West 22nd Street these days. Prepare to be immersed in the vengeful actions of a spirit world made lucid by a sensational production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.
Brutus Jones (Obi Abili), having killed another man in a dice game, was jailed in the States, but somehow escaped to a Caribbean island. Details are kept pointedly unclear. During a confrontation in the backward village where he found himself, Jones’ antagonist shot to kill, but his gun misfired.
Thinking quickly, the erstwhile target declared he couldn’t be dispatched by a lead bullet, only one of silver. Natives assumed all powerful magic. The interloper became a barbarous, self-serving Emperor. Savvy and prepared, money sequestered outside the country, he’s ready to flee when the time comes.
Andy Murray, Obi Abili
Jones is informed by cowed confederate, Henry Smithers (the only white man), that his “palace” servants have deserted him for the jungle. Response is disdainful and cocky. When sinister drums start, he nonetheless realizes time has come to abandon the ersatz throne. It’s three hours till nightfall, Jones knows the route out, and has cleverly hidden food. What could go wrong?
The rest of the chronicle follows his journey. Impeded by nature made hostile; haunted, torn, and misdirected by “the invisibles,” he suffers exhaustion, starvation and madness.
There are an infinite number of ways one might manifest the above. The symbiotic creatives at Irish Rep, under the adroit helm of Director Ciaran O’Reilly, offer a visually and audibly inventive, palpably menacing, magical scenario. O’Reilly, proven skillful with both naturalism and musicals is also apparently superb with the inconceivable. Concept and coordination are as outstanding as his lead’s performance.
Actor Obi Abili plays Brutus Jones as if possessed. Credibly egotistical and amoral, his character’s progressive shock and terror at what he’s experiencing is apparent from eyes to bodywork. We feel him wracked both by emotion and actual obstruction. You’ll feel yourself tense and wince. The fire-in-his-belly performance is memorable. This is only Mr. Abili’s second appearance in the United States. Watch him rise.
Unfortunately Andy Murray seems not to have figured out who Smithers is, which communicates as being insubstantial onstage.
Barry McNabb’s terrific Choreography shapes not only an evocative ceremonial dance by the Witch Doctor (a sinuous and emphatic Sinclair Mitchell) but movement and mood of trees/vines and creatures.
Puppet and Mask Design by Bob Flanagan utilizes a variety of styles all of which manage to coexist in a fantastic realm, delivering constant surprise and delight. These are some of the best I’ve seen since the work of Julie Taymor.
Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab create Sound Design and Music which buoys atmosphere and elicits shuddering anticipation.
Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher imagine flora costuming that almost disappears into the set. The Witch Doctor appears authentic. Jones’ costume is just right. Charlie Corcoran’s Set Design as effectively lit by Brian Nason brings the jungle to animated life.
An experimental play one might call exemplary of Magical Realism – a term coined long after the work’s inception, 1920’s The Emperor Jones signaled the first popular success of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Unlike anything else the iconic author had written, the piece appears to have been inspired by his political views on the U.S. “imperialist” occupation of Haiti (beginning in 1915, but subsequent to the drama’s setting) and influenced by inbred Catholicism (wages of sin) as well as intimate knowledge of personal (familial) demons.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s muscular interpretation is not to be missed.
The rest of a remarkable company: William Bellamy, Carl Hendrick Louis, Angel Moore, Reggie Talley
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening Obi Abili
Irish Repertory Theatre presents
The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through April 23, 2017