By Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly. Irish Rep. Through Nov. 29.
Is it too late to do it straight? Eugene O'Neill's 1927 play about a black convict who escapes to become the tinpot despot of small Caribbean island may be best known to contemporary audiences for the Wooster Group's ironic blackface version, questionable dialect and "n"-word and all. But Irish Rep's new production gets extremely high marks from critics for embracing O'Neill's dark fable on its own Jungian terms, with universal praise going to John Douglas Thompson's powerful lead performance and to the puppetry of Bob Flanagan. WSJ's Terry Teachout, though nursing serious doubts about the play, is nevertheless totally on board with the director Ciaran O'Reilly's approach, while Variety's Marilyn Stasio, while hailing Thompson, couldn't quite climb aboard the show's dreamy ride.
The New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) The fallen emperor has been returned to glory...An ember of real magnificence has been uncovered and fanned, gently and artfully, into a blazing flame. Set in a fluid, shadowy dreamscape, through which Mr. Thompson moves like a thrashing sleeper in a nightmare, this “Emperor” digs into recesses of the every-mind, setting off Jungian echoes of universal resonance in a work often perceived as a dated portrait of the black man’s burden. While much of Mr. O’Reilly’s production occurs in near-darkness, I can’t think of another show (in what has been a mostly lusterless theater season) that burns brighter. This act of illumination is a pinnacle in the rethinking of O’Neill’s short, brutal play, which spent decades moldering in that corner cupboard reserved for embarrassing works by great writers...Making exquisite use of dreamlike masks and puppets (by Bob Flanagan) and an aural backdrop (by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson) that seems to originate in your own head, this “Emperor Jones” is quieter and stealthier than any I’ve seen...A shivery whisper runs through this production.
Time Out NY A
(Garrett Eisler) O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones has finally come home. In a humble downtown space reminiscent of the old Provincetown Playhouse (where the play premiered in 1920) the Irish Rep’s bold revival executes O’Neill’s original modernist vision to the hilt...Although the relatively naturalistic beginning and end feel a bit clunky, the centerpiece “haunts” of Jones’s fatal jungle journey are rendered in a stirring mise-en-scène that (on a tiny stage platform, no less) fully realizes O’Neill’s vision of a man descending step by step into the collective unconscious of his race. Most successfully, Bob Flanagan’s Balinese-style puppets bring impossible dream sequences of chain gangs and slave auctions to life with eerie surprise...With his disciplined physical command and sheer verbal power, Thompson dispels from the outset any preconceptions of Jones as an inarticulate savage.
(Amber Gallery) It is a joy and a privilege to see O Neill's examination of the human subconscious brought to life in this fully realized, gorgeous, bone-chilling night of theatre...John Douglas Thompson transitions seamlessly from man-in-power to the regretful whimpering creature that Jones becomes. His demanding physical presence and booming voice serve the role well...The main attraction in The Emperor Jones, however, is the imaginary world through which Jones travels. And director Ciaran O'Reilly, his talented actors, dancers, and brilliant team of designers lead us through the jungle of Jones's mind exquisitely...The final dance of the witch doctor, performed by the astonishing Sinclair Mitchell and choreographed by Barry McNabb, is the most affecting piece of dance I have seen in years.
(Elyse Sommer) O'Reilly's staging is mindblowing. O'Neill himself restored masks to the theater in 1926 with The Great God Brown in order to, as he put it, "express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us." For a play that, except for the opening, unfolds mostly in the title character's mind, those puppets and masks are a stunning evocation of the past that haunt Jones' desperate flight from his rebellious subjects: From his Pullman porterdays to his days on a chain gang where he killed a guard, to his escape to the West Indies Island where he finagled his way to an ill-begotten throne...The crafts team O'Reilly has assembled to create this eerie Jungian landscape is extraordinary. The extraordinary puppets and the actors who inhabit them, as well as the costumes, atmospheric music and lighting are not just co-stars, but could easily upstage a lesser actor than Thompson. But Thompson is riveting.
(David Finkle) Director Ciaran O'Reilly has found at least one astonishing way to overcome these obstacles and restore The Emperor Jones to a blood-chilling, bone-rattling work of theater, by transforming the Irish Rep's stage into an eerie fantasy land. Furthermore, he's cast the monumental John Douglas Thompson, a memorable Moor in the Theatre for a New Audience's Othello production last season, who does an equally fearless, ennobling job now as Jones...To depict Jones' increasingly debilitating flight, Thompson applies his imposing physique and sonorous voice to a figure, assailed by growing fears. As he does, he inspires the kind of theatrical awe that playwrights since the Greeks have sought.
New York Post A
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Even today, the play's meaning remains hotly debated. But there is no doubt that it is one of O'Neill's most haunting, visceral works, and this nightmarish staging does it full justice. Adding greatly to the evening's power is the central performance by John Douglas Thompson as Jones...The actor's fearsome physical presence and booming baritone voice makes Jones' psychological disintegration all the more harrowing. Director Ciaran O'Reilly's production brilliantly depicts Jones' journey into the terrors of the jungle, which seems to literally come to life thanks to superbly designed puppets and masks...Offering excellent support are Rick Foucheux as Jones' cockney henchman, and the rest of the ensemble playing characters ranging from a witch doctor to the leader of the native forces.
Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) Smart, forceful, fiercely involving and wholly successful...Mr. O'Reilly has had the inspired notion of using a team of fantastically costumed dancer-puppeteers to play these supernatural creatures, who in the Irish Rep's production seem all too believable. Nine decades after it first set New York theatergoers on their ears, "The Emperor Jones" feels a bit creaky in spots, partly because it resembles Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" too closely for comfort and partly because Evelyn Waugh would cover some of the same ground even more creatively in "Black Mischief." I'm not so sure that O'Neill's play still works as a poetic statement about the thin ice on which Western civilization rests, but it definitely works as a tour de force for a first-rate black actor, and Mr. Thompson is all that and then some...Even if, like me, you have mixed feelings about O'Neill, don't miss "The Emperor Jones." I doubt you'll ever see it done better.
Lighting & Sound America A-
(David Barbour) By teaming with some inventive designers and a commanding leading man, O'Reilly has created an experience that, one suspects, is just as nerve-rattling as O'Neill would have wished...Not everything in O'Reilly's production works. The use of performers dressed as trees, lurking in the background and reconfiguring themselves to further confuse Jones, is a little awkward -- although, in other respects, Antonia Ford-Roberts' costumes (especially Jones' military uniform) fit well into the production's hothouse atmosphere...But The Emperor Jones also provides fascinating evidence of how O'Neill could transfer his own terrible conflicts into startlingly varied theatrical frameworks. In this production, the question of racism is tabled, partly because of the power of Thompson's performance and partly because Jones so obviously seems to be a projection of the ravenous appetites and searing guilts that tormented the author...Like much of O'Neill's second-tier work, The Emperor Jones is weird, excessive, even foolish. And yet, like most of his work, it exerts its own undeniable power for all of that.
(Marilyn Stasio) The primitive dialect, the native superstitions and all the other supposedly racist elements in Eugene O'Neill's 1920 tragedy that make sensitive auds squirm nowadays are simply brushed aside by John Douglas Thompson. This astonishingly gifted thesp -- unknown hereabouts until he won kudos for his recent portrayal of Othello for Theater for a New Audience -- confers dignity, intelligence, canniness and a sly sense of humor on the psychologically complex character of Brutus Jones...But thesp doesn't get what he needs from Ciaran O'Reilly's direction, which relies on puppets manipulated by masked actors in strange, Gumby-like costumes to convey the invisible sources of Jones' panic...On the Irish Rep's painfully inadequate stage, we can see right through the artifice.
The New York Times A+ 14; Time Out NY A 13; Nytheatre.com A 13; CurtainUp A 13; Theatermania A 13; New York Post A 13; Wall Street Journal A- 12; LS&A A- 12; Variety B- 9; TOTAL: 112/9=12.44 (A-)