Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Emperor Jones

I was curious to see how director Ciaran O'Reilly would present this 1920 haunting expressionistic play by Eugene O’Neill. I had read it, but never seen it. It’s a heavily psychological drama and one that is challenging to stage. O’Reilly rises to the test, mounting an exciting, fast-paced production at the Irish Repertory Theatre, one that is well served by John Douglas Thompson in the title role.

Thompson plays Brutus Jones, a conniving African-American man who fled to a Caribbean island after escaping from a prison in the United States. With his charismatic ways, he charms himself into a position of power and then holds onto it through intimidation. When the natives rise up, he tries to escape through the jungle, but finds himself lost and under attack from his own personal demons. Under O’Reilly’s direction and with Brian Nason’s eery lighting, this is a nightmare come to life with puppets and masks closing in. With Thompson’s amazing performance, I really felt Jones’ inner torture and decent into madness. He is powerful. Drama Desk nominations are in order for both Thompson and O’Reilly.

The production includes set design by Charles Corcoran; costume design by Antonia Ford-Roberts; original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery and Christian Fredrickson; puppet design by Bob Flanagan; and choreography by Brian McNabb.

O'Reilly, the Irish Rep’s producing director, staged a memorable production of O'Neill's The Hairy Ape in 2006.

Performances of The Emperor Jones have been extended a week and now run through Dec. 6. Tickets are available at the box office, 132 W. 22nd St. and by calling 212-727-2737. For more information visit www.irishrep.org.

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