Wooster Group's "Emperor Jones' (1st review)

3 minute read
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A high-tech Emperor Jones


Seeing is believing Kate Valk’s performance as Brutus Jones. She takes a black face, mostly minstrel approach, but the diva of the Wooster Group turns herself into Emperor Jones, Eugene O’Neill’s charismatic Pullman car porter who exploits an island in the West Indies.

The character is astonishingly rich— more “archetype than stereotype,” one reviewer has rightly pointed out. The voices she explores and alters, the gestures, the dialect— it’s a brave and bravura portrayal that can and should make you squirm; that reveals both the shock and value that still resonate in O’Neill’s 87- year- old drama.

“A big man gets big by talking big,” says the charismatic faux emperor, who has killed at least one man in the States. Jones has been assisted on his rise to power by the sleazy Smithers. Jones is now on the lam as islanders have found out his game. Running, Jones faces terrifying inner ghosts, racing through his own narrative, his own misdeeds, and the history of white oppression, even as the local witch doctor collaborates with Smithers to hunt Jones down.

A TV talking head

The Wooster Group’s founder-director Elizabeth LeCompte’s expressionist Emperor Jones toured Brussels, Munich, Vienna and other European cities in 1993-04 to considerable acclaim (among the notables in the role of Smithers was Wooster founding member Willem DaFoe.) The production was reprised in Manhattan a year ago. A highlight of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival was its recent presentation in Philadelphia, where this bare-bones, high-tech production fit snugly into the Arts Bank on Broad Street.

With Valk in the title role, Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos alternated as Smithers and the onstage Assistant. Shepherd made a Smithers oily in the extreme; sitting sideways, at the back of the stage, profile to the audience, he spoke into a microphone so that his face was reproduced into a monitor; this made it easy to view him as a smug talking head. A TV screen is also the way the production displays the witch doctor. (If you don’t know the play or fail to read the program notes, this revision is going to be confusing.) The Wooster Group considers technology its prop— an aid to clarity.

Ironic, then that— given all the cameras and microphones, and such an intimate space— several of Jones’s darkest monologues could barely be seen or heard. A good deal of tension was lost as Jones pursued his demons across the play’s eight scenes. The Wooster’s interpretation bends, slants, and renders O’Neill’s emperor more comic than perhaps necessary. So it’s impossible not to wonder how the playwright would take to the goofy Minstrel-Kabuki-soft shoe between Smithers and Jones. I like it— it makes its points. (Both men’s costumes have a kimono or kabuki influence, though no costumer is named.)

Listen hard to that sound track

David Linton’s score downplays the incessant, insistent drumming O’Neill asked for (which was achieved to such mesmerizing effect in the 1933 film with Paul Robeson). But listen hard and you will hear clever effects, including the sounds of coins and a cash register. More often the music is rock-hot.

Above all, Valk’s virtuosity is the thing that inspires me. Though LeCompte has pared by 17 minutes the original 70-minute play, this production seemed at least that long. But it whetted my appetite for more O’Neill, more Jones. As it happens, a production (Thea Sharrock’s) recently opened at the National Theatre. Patterson Joseph takes the lead. Oh, to hop a plane to London.

To read a review by Lewis Whittington, click here.

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