The Irish Rep on West 22nd Street has decided to open its 22nd season with a grandiose; Julie Taymor inspired production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 expressionistic drama “The Emperor Jones” under the direction of Ciaran O’Reilly.
Trying to outdo Disney on a smaller scale with sets (Charlie Corcoron) – Costumes (Antonia Ford-Roberts) – Lighting (Brian Nason) – Original music and sound (Ryan Rumery & Christian Frederickson) and Puppets and mask design (Bob Flanagan) the creative team has come up with a production that all but overwhelms the play and almost upstages the fine actor John Douglas Thompson in the title role.
To the beat beat beat of the tom toms, there is choreography by Barry McNabb. At times making the play seem like The Emperor Jones, The Ballet not the intense psychological drama that O’Neill intended.
To be fair it all looks wonderful, but it detracts from the drama. Are we waiting for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby to bring on Dorothy Lamour or do we want to see the gradual decline of the egocentric, street smart, self proclaimed Emperor, Brutus Jones – who has escaped from an American chain gang (serving time for murder) to set up his monarchy on some remote Caribbean Island (where the natives are superstitious and restless) to bleed the country for all its worth so that he can escape to Martinique to live the life he feels he is entitled to?
From arrogance to alarm to atonement John Douglas Thompson imbues his character with all the requite traits to elicit a strong and fearsome performance. For most of the 70 minutes he is the only person speaking, traveling in circles through the forest – his inner demons gradually taking over – making him repent for his past sins – returning him to the savage beast he always was.
Rick Foucheux plays Henry Smithers, a Cockney trader who has an inkling that all is not right as he berates an old native woman (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) before having a lengthy discussion with Brutus about the trouble he will soon be facing. As good an actor as he is you cannot help but thinking he is a character in an old Tarzan flick.
Much of the dated dialogue is spoken in black dialect with the “N” word rampant throughout. The use of a dancing witch doctor and tribal masks only reinforces the stereotypes that O’Neill was writing about in 1920.
The other actors: Jon Deliz, Michael Akil Davis, Sinclair Mitchell and David Heron play minor roles and for the most part are disguised as the foreboding forest trees. Very Disney. But this is not a show for children.
Tickets are $65. and $55. www.irishrep.org