Review by Tulis McCall
18 Oct 2009
Upon seeing this production, a New York Theatre icon who was at the show with a few chums, was heard to say “So politically correct,’ three times while walking from his seat to the lobby – a distance of about 30 feet. He was right, but for some reason it really bugged me that he had to say it.
And on the other hand I understand his comment. I really expected the worst at this production. Emperor Jones is a self-created emperor, a black despot who beats up on everyone he can lay his hands on. In his island kingdom, most of those people are black, and the Emperor uses the “n” word like a food flavoring. Oweee. I hear that enough on the street, and find it loathsome. Why would I want to see it onstage? In addition I saw John Douglas Thompson in Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Othello and liked everything BUT his performance. So I was dragging on my way to this play.
Well now, the evening was a great surprise. In Jones, Thompson has dropped all affectation and the struggle he has with Shakespeare’s English. He has settled into this role beautifully and handles O’Neill’s very tricky language with a finely tuned delivery. Jones really is an Everyman, and Thompson gives him all the space he needs to flourish and fail.
More importantly, he is guided by the direction Ciaran O’Reilly, who has created an entire fantasy world on this 15x15 – ish stage. O‘Reilly has done so by enlisting the excellent talents of puppet and mask designer Bob Flanagan. Together they have made the world of the forest, into which Jones flees when he realizes his subjects are planning a revolution, into a full blown character. The excellent ensemble cast morphs from low brush to tall forest to plantation owners at an auction, to the demons that eventually overtake Jones. Thompson submits himself to their sad ministering one scene at a time and the change is so fluid that, were you to look away for a moment and then back, you would think real time had passed. Jones is slowly stripped of his clothing, his defenses and his wits. There is an especially effective scene where what appear to be tiny laser pinholes of light literally split the stage into a floating mirage of forms.
The effect is so overwhelming that you feel yourself a both seduced and unsettled by it all. The only drawback to the evening is that the most of the action directed to face only one of the two sections of seats. A bit more attention to the poor souls seated on the left side of the house should be given. Should you go – ask for House Right.
Jones fall from life is the more devastating because of the first half of the play. The script is split nearly in half – the first being the scene between Jones and Henry Smithers (Rick Foucheux), the only white person we see, who is an opportunist every bit as despicable as Jones but not as smart. He prefers to bottom feeding and therefore does not risk either the heights or a fall from them. These two lay out Jones past (murderer, escaped convict) and present in a dialogue that would match any great scene between two men in a pissing contest line for line. O’Reilly’s hand is felt here as well because within minutes we let go of race and watch the ego of each man have at it.
We let go of race. We don’t forget it. There is a fine line between the two, and in this production we spend a lot of time perched directly on it.
And thank the Lord this audience didn’t jump to their feet at the curtain call. Instead they did something so classy. They shouted “Bravo!” How very Irish to use words instead of action. How very O’Neill-like.
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "I can’t think of another show (in what has been a mostly lusterless theater season) that burns brighter."
FRANK SCHECK for NEW YORK POST says, "One of O'Neill's most haunting, visceral works, and this nightmarish staging does it full justice."
MARILYN STASIO for VARIETY says, "This astonishingly gifted thesp (John Douglas Thompson) confers dignity, intelligence, canniness and a sly sense of humor on the psychologically complex character of Brutus Jones"