‘Emperor Jones’ review: stay out of the woods

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Obi Abili as Brutus Jones in Irish Rep’s production of ‘The Emperor Jones.’ © Carol Rosegg

How it’s New York: Irish Rep presents the piece, one of the finest gems of a residential theatre in the city.
How it’s Irish: Eugene O’Neill was proud of his Irish heritage.

“The Emperor Jones” is Horror.

It is in the Horror genre the way “Night of the Walking Dead” is Horror.

How did I never notice this before?

“Blair Witch Project” has nothing on Eugene O’Neill’s (1920) play “The Emperor Jones.”

From the moment Brutus Jones (Obi Abili ) enters the woods, to try to get to the other side of the island, away from the natives he robbed blind, the drums never stop, the shadows hide monsters, and the creep factor is too high to measure.

O’Neill wrote his one-act this way—the “little formless  fears” are the first thing Jones encounters. But usually the takeaway is the psychological study, the ghosts of Jones’ own past that afflict him and the race memory that takes him to an auction block and even a slave ship.

Also, the takeaway from the show is usually the tour de force of the eponymous role. But while Abili brings gravitas and intensity to his role, his performance is not the main event. The play itself is, and that’s how it should be.

Director Ciarán O’Reilly, with the help of choreographer Barry McNabb, and evocative music by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, additional music by Christian Frederickson, has put together a dark, precise and unforgettable production.

What terrors lurk in the woods?

Andy Murray as Smithers and Obi Abili as Brutus Jones, at Irish Rep. ©Carol Rosegg

The plot is simple enough—early on we see a native woman heading for the hills (Angel Moore), stopped by the jaded, loyal, British Smithers (a sympathetic, not-toadying Andy Murray). By the time Jones enters, we know his imperial reign is over.

When he calls, nobody comes.

Jones’ plan has always been to get out with loot, and head for a ship on the other side of the island—and now is the time. He takes his gun and goes. His subjects believe Jones can only be killed with a silver bullet, so he had them make one for himself, vowing to take his life for them.

Hard not to think of a president who promised to not take a salary.

And this is not just reading in. According to the press release for the play, Irish Rep was inspired to re-stage the play, which the theatre had last done in 2009,  “due to the current political and social climate.” In the program, O’Reilly quotes Jones’ describing his technique:

Sure I talks large when I ain’t got nothing to back it up, but I ain’t talkin’ wild just the same. I knows I can fool ’em– I knows it– and that’s backin’ enough for my game.

and then makes the connection explicit by saying that today, what Jones does might be described as “fake news.”

O’Reilly asks in the program how long power built on this platform can be maintained.

How long can the silver bullet shine?

O’Neill famously wrote in phonetic dialect, making his plays hard to read, but accents very clear when spoken. He also wrote detailed stage directions, making his plays lovely to read.

But nothing can compare to the sheer theatricality of watching the spectacle unfold.ary

Jones, a former Pullman porter and murderer, has charisma—from the moment he enters with an imperial Colonial military coat half on (wonderfully expressive costumes by Antonia Ford Roberts  and Whitney Locher), he inspires fear. Abili plays him as a schemer and businessman—think Russian mafia more than cult-leader Jim Jones. Adulation came with the job, and Jones liked it—but adulation wasn’t his goal.

Money was.

When this Jones speaks to his feet, “feet, do your duty,” it isn’t funny, or even a comment on the black cliché– it’s just a thought.

When he mocks the witch doctor’s rhythmic dance, though, it’s funny and gets a laugh from Sanders and the audience.

Sinclair Mitchell as the Witch Doctor in ‘The Emperor Jones’ at Irish Rep. ©Carol Rosegg

Later when we see the actual witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell) dance, it’s not funny at all. Mitchell’s sharp, rhythmic moves are hypnotic. (In addition to playing the same role with Irish Rep before, Mitchell has performed in “The Lion King,” and his familiarity with African and Carribbean dance movement shines.)

The inexplicable strangeness of the forest recalls “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

Because Jones’ subjects have stolen the horses, he has to go on foot.

Andy Murray as a chain gang taskmaster ghost of the past in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ Carol Rosegg

Nature is scary. The drumming of the natives works on the heartbeat. Don’t forget to breathe.

Ghosts of the past, including the man Jones murdered in a crap game, are not unlike Bunraku puppets,  manipulated by actors in black, though the puppets are mostly flat.  Bob Flanagan’s puppets summon all the terrors of childish nightmares from which one tries to awake, and can’t. (For all that the play has the one memorable role, a rather large cast is required. Irish Rep makes do with 7, most playing double roles– and thanks to the masks you won’t ever confuse them.)

Charlie Corcoran’s simple set with platforms that hold a throne and turn into the woods, with festoons of vines, ably makes the forest. Brian Nason’s lighting feels alive, providing not only shadow, but eerie color on the hallucinations.

Jones never makes it out of the forest—and neither does the audience. The production is precise, terrifying and truly haunting.

 

 

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