TIO NYC: Into The Woods, Two Plays
“The Emperor Jones” is now up (through April 23) at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Tickets here.
The forest is one of these great, universal symbols, ever-present in myth, legend, literature, fine art, film, and other mediums, including theatre. (Think another of Sondheim’s classics, “Into the Woods.”) Throughout history, forests have symbolized the unconscious mind, a place which, according to Jung, obscures, even devours reason.
Expressionism is characterized by distortion and exaggeration in order to create an emotional effect that touches all mediums. In drama, it developed in Europe (principally Germany) in the early decades of the 20th century, later in the United States. In expressionist theatre, everything and everyone on the stage feels awry and tortured.
Welcome to the world of “The Emperor Jones.”
“The Emperor Jones” is Eugene O’Neill’s controversial (read highly racist as originally conceived) 1920s play and an expressionistic masterpiece about the last hours of one Brutus Jones, an ex-con with two murder charges dogging his heels. Jones ascends the throne of a Caribbean island following a prison break, using lies, intimidation, and the politics of fear to establish himself as a demagogue over jungle natives, convincing them he can only be killed by a silver bullet. (You know, like a vampire.) The man is a bully who loves to flex his muscles while luxuriating on his throne wearing a golden crown, thinking about all the loot he is milking from his office.
As the play opens, the patience of his subjects has run out – as Jones always knew it would – and so with the money he stole stashed securely in foreign banks, he sets out on his escape route through the jungle.
The steady, beat, beat, beat of a single drum reminds Jones that his pursuers are gaining on him. In the forest, he is forced to relive the horrors of his racial past as society’s trappings (his clothing for example) get stripped away, exposing his humanity at its most primal. Quite simply and terrifyingly, the jungle’s depths dismantle the brute’s (hence Brutus Jones’) psyche.
Under the exacting direction of Ciarán O’Reilly and starring the powerful British actor Obi Abili, the inherent racism of the original is marginalized by Abili’s hypnotic performance of a man in a fever dream, his power and cockiness falling away as fear and madness take over in the seemingly endless, mystical, spooky jungle animated by actors wearing dark, textured costumes (by Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher), who dance to an eerie soundscape.
Jones has horrible visions: giant, sluglike creatures; a crocodile; a dice-playing porter Jones once killed; a chain gang from his imprisonment; a slave auction complete with Southern belles quietly fanning themselves.
All surreal masks and puppets.
All the more affecting as artifacts of a civilization and its outer reaches.
Jones shoots the bullets from his gun to make the horrors disappear. But they won’t go away, so the man falls to his knees, praying to God for forgiveness of his sins.
But it’s too little, too late.
For O”Neill – or at least his modern interpreters – tyranny and treachery is color blind, neither black nor white.
“The Emperor Jones” is based on a true story of a murderous former Haitian dictator named Vibrun Guillume Sam. But is the story that unfold over 70 flaying minutes still relevant today?
Here’s one of the lines Abili/Jones speaks:
“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 – an that’ backin’ enough for my game.”
In other words, Jones is just smart enough to know that power is largely a matter of show and tell.
“Ain’t a man’s talkin’ big what makes him big — long as he makes folks believe it?” Jones asks Smithers (the excellent Andy Murray), his Cockney henchman, in the opening scene.
Sound vaguely familiar?
The ends may justify the means – if there is an end to the ends.
The backdrop of Sara Ruel’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” at Lincoln Center’s Mizi Newhouse Theatre, is a depiction of a forest, which is just outside the picture window of a manicured, suburban living room, where we meet two married couples — Georgia (who also answers to “George”), Marisa Tomei, and husband Paul (Omar Metwally), along with their friends Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison), who are enjoying after-dinner drinks and conversation.
The obvious conceit – and smoking gun – being that our antecedents once lived wild in the forest.
What seals the deal is that only minutes before the scene of the happy couples, the flayed and bloody carcass of a deer hung from the living room ceiling like a Surrealist chandelier. A reminder that as that merry band of wild people living in the big bad forest, we ate the meat of the wild animals we slew.
And while we are on the subject of wild animals, we are meant to think of one of the characters in the production as one of them, a girl named Pip (Lena Hall), who lives in a polyamorous relationship and kills whatever meat the threesome eats – ergo she is wild, a sexy forest, err, nymph.
Anyway, a woman in touch with her inner, what?, deer– or dear.
“Marriage” is ultimately a play about all things animal: killing them, eating them, and our celebrted instincts. But really, despite the clear-eyed direction of Rebecca Taichman and a bravura cast led by the enchanting Tomei (who is the glue, her performance understated; her comedic timing, spot on), the show is warmed over ideas from the 60s and 70s, when hallucinogenic drugs and mating rituals were hot (so to speak) topics: “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” – George, Paul, Michael and Jane meets “Hair”– and a kosher butcher.
Everyone gets stones and naked, literally and metaphorically, has sex – and a few insights – but to what end?
Épater la bourgeoisie?
For more insights into our primal natures, I suggest reading ”The Bacchae.”
Skip the play.
For more Marisa Tomei, watch “My Cousin Vinny” – one more time.
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