The Emperor Jones
nytheatre.com review by Amber Gallery
October 16, 2009
The Emperor Jones, one of the lesser known and less frequently staged plays by the great Eugene O'Neill, is given its due at the Irish Repertory Theatre this Halloween season. It is a joy and a privilege to see O Neill's examination of the human subconscious brought to life in this fully realized, gorgeous, bone-chilling night of theatre.
The plot of this play is 90 percent complete by the time it begins. Brutus Jones escaped from prison in America (where he was serving time for murder) after beating the guard of his chain gang over the head. He fled to a Caribbean Island where he was able to convince the Natives who lived there that he had supernatural powers and should be their ruler. By eliciting fear and awe in them, he has been ruling over the island for years, stealing its money and keeping it in a bank overseas. At the opening of the play, Jones learns the natives have chosen to rebel and kill him and he decides to make a run for it through the forest that night.
John Douglas Thompson transitions seamlessly from man-in-power to the regretful whimpering creature that Jones becomes. His demanding physical presence and booming voice serve the role well. As his confidante Smithers, Rick Foucheux is excellent. He nicely communicates the brutality of Jones's rule with every flinch and cower and he nails the play's few lighter moments, for which he is mostly responsible.
The main attraction in The Emperor Jones, however, is the imaginary world through which Jones travels. And director Ciaran O'Reilly, his talented actors, dancers, and brilliant team of designers lead us through the jungle of Jones's mind exquisitely. As Jones grows hungrier and more exhausted and more disoriented, he is confronted by fear, past regrets, and finally pure insanity. Masked figures and puppets appear around every corner as the symbols of these states of mind. While not one of them directly pursues Jones (O'Neill and O'Reilly splendidly realize that an ominous figure lurking in a dark corner is often more frightening) he is driven more and more mad by each one, wasting bullet after bullet in his gun to make them go away until not even suicide is an option.
The design team makes the best use possible of the tiny stage at Irish Rep. The movement never feels crowded or awkward and Jones's journey—at least his physical one—never seems less than fluid. Bob Flanagan's puppets and masks are disturbing and extraordinary. And the set, designed by Charlie Corcoran, with its curtains crafted after glittery tall trees in a faraway forest, is the perfect backdrop. Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery do a wonderful job with the trance-inducing original music, and the constant drumbeat of the approaching natives that O'Neill calls for is the perfect tone, volume, and pace to feel like it is the beating of Jones's heart, or your own. And the final dance of the witch doctor, performed by the astonishing Sinclair Mitchell and choreographed by Barry McNabb, is the most affecting piece of dance I have seen in years.
Overall, amazing elements come together to make an unusual and affecting night of theatre. This is the perfect time of year for an unsettling journey, and The Emperor Jones is the ticket.