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The Emperor Jones – Off Broadway Theater Review




picture - The Emperor JonesTheater Review

by Cindy Pierre

published November 15, 2009


The Emperor Jones

now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre

through December 6


[The Emperor Jones reopens at the Soho Playhouse December 15 - January 31, 2010]


Who would have thought that a brilliant, albeit unfinished concept of a play (it begins in the middle, dilly dallies there, and then abruptly ends) named The Emperor Jones existed in Eugene O'Neill's repertoire prior to Long Day's Journey Into Night? Based on its limited production history, very few.  Despite being acknowledged as O'Neill's breakout play and receiving great critical acclaim in 1920, The Emperor Jones is certainly not the stage darling that Long Day's Journey is, and with a running time of 70 minutes, is not the theatrical marathon, either.  Fortunately, the Irish Repertory Theatre makes up for lost opportunity and then some in their electrifying production of a play about an entirely different excursion.


That Brutus Jones (John Douglas Thompson) – a former black porter who commits murder, escapes from jail to the West Indies, and establishes an empire by exploiting local superstitions – is on an odyssey that is rare for O'Neill's characters is immediately evident.  Instead of being mired in misery, pessimism, and addictions, Jones begins as a triumphant figure, puffing and thumping his chest for having robbed and hoodwinked the islanders, his subjects, out of their money and peace of mind.  It isn't until he is forewarned about a revolt by Henry Smithers (Rick Foucheux), a white trader, and decides to flee into the forest that his bombast begins to deflate.


But not entirely.  Even after his escape into the thicket becomes a haunted house that just won't end, he struggles to maintain his self-appointed station.  Performers dressed in foliage wrap their branches around him, engulfing him in shades of green and stripes of war paint.  But that's only the beginning of his trials.  Jones may “gots brains...and uses them quick,” but no amount of nimble thinking will help him here.  In fact, they do the exact opposite.  Bob Flanagan's spellbinding puppetry design raises ancestors and former acquaintances from the dead, convicting Jones of all that he has done and undone.  Every time a puppet is erected, it exceeds the one that came before it in spookiness. 


Yet, creepiness is not the only thing that works in this production's favor.  Under Ciaran O'Reilly's sharp direction, and using Barry McNabb's tribal choreography, the ensemble simulates memories and situations that are a fresh manifestation of guilt.  Instead of expressing it in exposition, we see an external torment that possibly pushes our own pangs of remorse to the forefront.  Masks, shrill sounds and bones are provocative, but nothing's more stimulating than a show that makes us take a hard look at ourselves.


You may not be trying to exorcise any demons or let any in when you walk into The Emperor Jones, but between Thompson's fiery performance and all the captivating visuals that you can stand, you'll be possessed with fascination.  Fascination that O'Neill could write such a compelling piece that isn't vaguely autobiographical in nature, and fascination that puppets, engineered of wood and screws, could be as vivid as flesh.  The Emperor Jones may be just as much about ruling the past as it is the present, but in the hands of such a gifted cast and crew, they both bow down.


cindypierre @


photo by Carol Rosegg


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