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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
The Exonerated

It's not easy to be a poet and yet I sing. . . We sing
---Dilbert Tibbs
The Exonerated is in the tradition of agitprop theater or what journalists refer to as muckraking. Not a bad thing when its message is as smoothly stitched into a human quilt as it is here, with the figures in that quilt brought to life by a committed ensemble of actors.

As Moises Kaufman and the members of his Tectonic Project forged The Laramie Project from interviews with the people in the town where Matthew Shepard was killed, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have created The Exonerated from interviews they conducted with former death row inmates all over the country. Unlike Laramie, which focuses on a single case, The Exonerated uses the stories of six of its interview subjects to represent not only the forty people with whom they met but the eighty-nine people who were exonerated in the summer of 2000 when they took their tape recorders on the road. Exonerated, by the way, does not mean that you are declared unconditionally innocent but that you've been freed because it turns out that you have not been proven guilty beyond a doubt.

While this is an unashamed anti-death penalty polemic, Blank and Jensen are theater people as much as American citizens with a cause. In format, The Exonerated, is, like The Guys, essentially a staged reading. However, with a strong assist from director Bob Balaban, the cross-cutting from one monologist to another and the power of the words (condensed,combined and extrapolated for theatrical impact but using the words from the authors' transcripts) is such that those who come expecting a play and not a lecture won't feel short changed. Like The Guys and other concert style plays, The Exonerated, could, with the right audience response, continue its open run indefinitely, with the cast rotating and kept newsworthy by the addition of other high profile actors like the current production's Jill Clayburgh, Sara Gilbert and Richard Dreyfuss*.

But don't expect any of these box office draw actors to dominate the stage. Clayburgh and Dreyfuss powerfully relate two of six gut-wrenching stories so that we have a real picture of each one's personality. The same is true of the other stories and the rest of the ensemble. Gilbert has one of the smallest roles as the woman who marries Kerry Max Cooke (Richard Dreyfuss. after he is released from prison.

Clayburgh at first seems too well-groomed and upbeat to be part of these at times gasp inducing experiences. But as we get to know Sunny Jacobs we understand the almost constant smile. This woman, who along with her common-law husband was sent to death row based on false evidence given by a man who turned out to be a friend from Hell, is one of the most forceful characters on stage. At first incapable of taking in her incarceration -- "I'm a hippie, a vegetarian-- how could I kill anyone?" -- she survives her incredible twenty-two year ordeal when she determines to have faith because " I wasn't just a lump of flesh you could put in a cage." True to her name, she also goes on with her life as a Yoga teacher and public speaker, determined that her living will serve as a memorial for her lover.

Unlike Sunny, Kerry (the Dreyfuss character), and several of the other exonerated have more difficulty dealing with the nightmare memories of their ordeals. As Kerry says, "They executed me a thousand times and they're still doing it."

The most articulate character, a political radical named Delbert Tibbs, who was falsely accused of rape and murder while hitchhiking across America, is played with distinction by the mellifluous voiced Charles Brown who last excelled in King Hedley II. As already pointed out though, this is an ensemble piece includes besides Sara Gilbert's "swing" character an African-American ( (April Yvette Thompson) who plays a variety of other supporting parts. There is also a male chorus, the versatile Bruce Kronenberg and Philip Levy, to take on all the bigoted and politically motivated rotten apples in the American justice system.

If you're looking for a two-sided, open-minded play about capital punishment, this is not it. Still, whether you're for or against it, you'll be moved by the potency with which these particular case histories are brought to life. The Exonerated is not easy to watch, but then it's not easy to be locked up and condemned to death for a crime you didn't commit and, as Sunny puts it, have an "entire chunk from your life removed."

* The cast rotation began within a week of this review, with Peter Gallagher and Amelia Campbell scheduled to move into Richard Dreyfuss's and Sara Gilbert's chairs.

The Laramie Project
The Guys

The Exonerated
By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Directed by Bob Balaban
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Kerry Max Cook), Jill Clayburgh (Sunny Jacobs), Sara Gilbert (Sue Gauger, Sandra), Charles Brown (Delbert Tibbs), David Brown Jr. (Robert Earl Hayes), Bruce Kronenberg (Male Ensemble #1), Phil Levy( Male Ensemble #2), Curtis McClarian (David Keaton), Jay O. Sanders (Gary Gauger) April YvetteThompson(Georgia Hayes, Judge, Paula, Prosecutor)
Production Design/ Technical Supervisdor: Tom Ontiveros
Costume Coordinator: Sara J. Tosetti
Original Music and Sound Design: David Robbins
Running time: 95 minutes without intermission
45 Bleecker (corner Lafayette) 212-307-4100
Tue - Fri at 8pm; Sat at 5pm, 9pm; Sun at 3pm, 7pm -- $55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Multiple Casts Keep Drawing Audiences to the The Exonerated
What do The Exonerated, Trumbo, The Guys and The Vagina Monologues have in common? All were/are socially relevant plays presented as staged readings, and with an army of celebrities -- major and minor -- traipsing through the runs.

Without staging or memorization, heavily scheduled people such as Rob Lowe and Richard Dreyfus have been able to traipse through the the still going strong run of The Exonerated at random. Though this limits production values, it allows the cast to help pull in audiences as well as a way to keep the show fresh on its toes -- a common challenge for open run productions.

The most recent spin on this "name" casting took a more literal route: on the show's first anniversary this past October, one of the people portrayed in the play, Kerry Max Cook, performed himself. From November 17 - 23 this experiment was stepped up with four of the exonerated individuals portrayed playing themselves -- Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, Sunny Jacobs and Delbert Tibbs.

The afternoon of my attendance, all but Kerry Max Cook were on stage, leaving an even split of actors portraying exonerated individuals and exonerated individuals telling their own story. It was instantly recognizable who was who by on-stage demeanor. The show is carefully and dramatically constructed, and therefore fit the movements and intonations of the veteran professional performers with ease. For Gauger, Jacobs and Tibbs, reciting lines about their own lives took warm-up time. Though I found it heart wrenching to hear these people tell their own story, the transition back and forth between the two camps took considerable adjusting.

The writers, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen traveled all around the country to interview many exonerated individuals, judges, prison guards, etc. They say that the script was created by reconstructing the words of these individuals, and all stories are completely true. Whenever Gauger, Jacobs or Tibbs were reciting lines, I wanted them to stop, to close their scripts and tell me -- tell us -- what they had told Blank and Jensen, rather than this reconstruction of their story.

With the continued cast rotationt, chances are good these exonerated individuals will return to the stage at The Culture Project. Chances are also good that another casting innovation could well be on its way for this show. For a full review of the play, the first cast and the non-changing production details, see Elyse Sommer's review following this box.

Cast for Nov 17 - 23, 2003: Kerry Max Cook/ Bill Dawes, Gary Gauger, Erik LaRay Harvey, Sunny Jacobs, Delbert Tibbs, Ed Onipede Blunt, Bruce Kronenberg, Katherine Leask, Larry Block, William Jay Marshall, Curtis McClarin, April Yvette Thompson.

-- reviewed by Amanda Cooper, at a November 23rd 2003 matinee
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