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Barry McNabb

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.

2 men

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

Finian’s Rainbow – Fantasy, Romance, and Politics


Over and above enchanting music and a fantasy love story, this 1947 musical features corrupt politicians, vast economic disparity, blatant racial bigotry, and hope for the future, borrowing a premise from another story whose rainbow is pivotal. Need you ask why now?

How does it hold up? Well, songs are still swell, though somewhat thinner due to a small cast , the two attitudes/subjects remain strange bedfellows, and the piece has been so condensed that its romance proceeds with enough speed to give you whiplash.


Ken Jennings and Melissa Errico; Ryan Silverman and Melissa Errico

This is not so say Rainbow Valley, Missatucky (Mississippi and Kentucky) is not an entertaining place to visit. (Whimsy later includes the Shears-Robust catalog.) James Morgan’s charming set, dripping with foliage, flowers, song scores, and storybook sentiment, creates an immediate aura of illuminated make-believe. By the time the small band, replete with lovely harp, begins its mini overture, we’ve settled in with pleasant expectation.

The tobacco growing valley is occupied by black and white denizens who get along just fine, thanks. Because of a proposed dam raising property values, Senator Rawkins (Dewey Waddell – terrific accent and bluster) has sent his right hand man Buzz (Matt Gibson) and the local Sheriff (Peyton Crim) to seize the land from owner and occupants through successive nefarious citations. Our hero, Woody (Ryan Silverman – clean cut presence with an engaging baritone), is determined not to let this happen.

Rawkins is an out and out bigot, neither immigrants nor blacks escape southern condemnation. When Sharon challenges him with The Constitution, the Senator responds,”I haven’t had a chance to read it. I’m too busy defending it.”

The Company

Arriving at a critical juncture, ostensibly from Ireland, are Sharon (Melissa Errico, whose lovely trill first buoyed the role a dozen years ago) and her pixilated father Finian (Ken Jennings). Finian carries a carpet bag with a stolen crock of gold he buries, believing proximity to Ft. Knox will make it grow. A Leprechaun named Og, the crock’s rightful owner, has followed them to America. (Dancer Mark Evens-too tall and completely unsympathetic.) Og is becoming more human every day, suddenly pining after every woman he sees.

Unaware she’s standing near the gold, Sharon wishes the Senator was black (so that that he’d experience prejudice). Apparently the crock is invested with three wishes. Horrified, at the color of his skin (and all it implies), Rawkins runs away…returning later to be changed again twice, once internally, once externally. The order of these is particularly important. Word gets out there’s gold in the hills which causes a Rube Goldberg effect of assumptions, solving things. Of course. The company is solid. Solos by Angela Grovey and Kimberly Doreen Burns stand out.

Lyrica Woodruff and The Company

To my mind, the find of the evening is Lyrica Woodruff  (Susan the Silent). The performer is utterly captivating. Expressions are innocent, animated, and appropriate.  She dances like a dream. Unfortunately, the production saw fit to make her up (the only red lips on the stage) and outfit her like a ballerina in The Nutcracker instead of as a simple, young woman. She looks as if she wandered onto the wrong set.

Director Charlotte Moore has a painterly feel for creating pictures, whether still or moving. The show moves fluidly. Characters’ perspective is well realized. I tend to take issue with any production whose personnel plays to the audience and not each other, however.

Choreographer Barry McNabb does a spritely job with brief dance turns by the cast and a splendid one with Susan’s numbers. Costume Design by David Toser is attractive and cohesive except for Og’s get-up which looks like he’s trying too hard.

Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: The Company

Finian’s Rainbow
Music: Burton Lane, Lyrics: E.Y. Harburg, Book: E.Y. Harburg & Fred Saidy
Adapted and Directed by Charlotte Moore
Musical Supervisor: John Bell
Orchestra: Geraldine Anello, Janey Choi, Nina Kellman, Melanie Mason
Irish Repertory Theatre 
132 West 22nd Street
Though December 18, 2016