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A CurtainUp Review
The Emperor Jones
by Les Gutman
There is a lot about ruthless dictators that Eugene O'Neill could not have imagined in 1920 when he wrote this play. And though one commonly thinks of The Emperor Jones as the particularized story of an African-American pullman car porter who kills a man, goes to jail, kills a guard while on a chain gang and then escapes to an island in the West Indies where he grifts his way to power, The Wooster Group's production finesses that lesson and (to a large degree) the offensiveness of the characterization, creating a decidedly Brechtian effect of uncommon resonance.
I went to see The Wooster Group's return engagement of The Emperor Jones expecting to be blown away by Kate Valk's tour de force performance in the title role. (I was, and I'll get back to that shortly.) I was also curious about the play itself -- complex and groundbreaking in more ways than one can count, and described as both difficult to present to contemporary audiences and yet the play with which "American theatre came of age" [Travis Bogard, Contours in Time]. And yes, it is all of those things.
Along the way, the show even manages to weigh in, serendipitously, on the very current question of the risks theaters face in presenting work which is likely to touch a raw nerve or two. If the play's history had a voice in this debate, it would probably say, "Go forth into the cauldron".
The Emperor Jones has been a controversy looking for a place to happen from the get-go. In its original presentation in 1920, the Provincetown Players had the temerity to cast a black man (Charles Gilpin) to play the black man who is the show's title character, hero and villain. (Prior to that time, white actors routinely got the job, and performed in black face). The result was a show that became the hottest ticket in town. (The production would later move uptown, and Paul Robeson would become known when he took over for Gilpin.) In 1998, confronted by a seminal play containing a negative stereotype of monumental proportions, The Wooster Group and its director Elizabeth LeCompte chose to negotiate its own path through the minefield of political correctness: they cast a white woman (Kate Valk) as The Emperor Brutus Jones, had her appear in black face and, as if to further animate the construct, dressed her in a Kabuki-like outfit. In 1998 and no doubt for the current re-incarnation, audiences line up to see the show.
The Wooster Group version of Emperor follows O'Neill's script, though it truncates some of the text. The cast has been reduced essentially to two, Jones and the Cockney trader, Smithers (Ari Fliakos -- played by Scott Shepherd at alternate performances). There is also a credited "stage assistant" (performed by Shepherd and presumably Fliakos on alternate nights).
During much of the play, Smithers is relegated to the edges of Jim Clayburgh's sideless-box set, and the action of the play's six middle scenes (those depicting his journey through the forest, during which he encounters visions -- "haunts" -- of his own life and history) are displayed entirely on a video (by Christopher Kondek) at upstage center. Virtually everything happening onstage is thus focused almost exclusively on Ms. Valk. To say that she commands the stage is an understatement. Hers is a performance the likes of which most will never have experienced before, and are not likely to encounter again. Her gutteral yet lyrical voice is punctuated by leaps up the vocal range and down into a laugh that causes goosebumps; her eyes fly around the set like birds; every motion in her body is calculated, timed, perfection.
There is no attempt at realism in this piece. The blank canvas set is occasionally augmented by a prop -- a wheelchair haphazardly covered in what looks like a loosely-knit "furry" sweater as the throne, a single large potted plant as the forest. Ms. Valk is almost never without her microphone -- usually attached to a long pole. Jennifer Tipton's lighting, much of it fluorescent, never evokes the natural, though it increasingly possesses a sickly murkiness. Dances, which form interludes, conjure up an invention we might call Japanese vaudeville.
As we have come to expect from The Wooster Group, every element of the production is carefully hewn and intelligently considered. Voices, sound effects, lighting, video and movement are calibrated with the precision of a watchmaker. My only quibble is that Mr. Kondek's videos are projected on a monitor so small that it is impossible to appreciate what is happening in the middle scenes. This is especially unfortunate for anyone who does not arrive knowing the play, though a short summary of the eight scenes is included in the playbill, and a couple minutes spent reading it will bring anyone up to speed.
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