Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly as a feverish nightmare, this Emperor, in just over an hour, exposes the inner reaches of the mind of the title character, Brutus Jones (played with a booming voice and a larger-than-life charisma by Obi Abili) leaving tedious reality behind.
With Charlie Corcoran’s flexible set turning the tiny stage of the Irish Rep into a looming tropical forest and the smartly realized costumes of Antonia Ford-Robertsand Whitney Locher and Bob Flanagan’s masks and puppets transforming a cast of seven into a multitude of trees, ghostly presences and spirits, the five hundred or so square feet of this stage on West 22nd Street became a vividly haunted island in the West Indies giving life to O’Neill’s 1920 drama.
Using wile, threats, violence and his personal form of voodoo, Pullman porter/escaped chain gang prisoner, Brutus Jones became the iron-fisted ruler of a tiny nation whose inhabitants appear to be totally cowed until, that is, they aren’t and foment a revolt against his savage rule. Suddenly, the self-anointed Emperor has to make a sprint for the coast and, hopefully, an escape. In the course of this frantic dash, Jones’ past haunts him, the forest taunts him, and he is overwhelmed by his guilt and done in by his own boasts about his immortality.
Henry Smithers (Andy Murray, properly worn-out and sporting an excellent accent), a white man, lords it over the island’s blacks with Jones’ passive approval. As the play opens, he is abusing a poor woman, setting the scene for Jones’ entrance, sitting on a grand, red velvet throne. As things deteriorate for the Emperor, slimy Smithers reinvents himself and sides with the natives who hound Jones until they “hoist” Jones “by his own petard.”
The rest of the cast—William Bellamy, Carl Hendrick Louis, Sinclair Mitchell, Angel Moore and Reggie Talley—though mostly hidden by brilliantly evocative masks and constructions, are, nevertheless, vivid in their movements and acting.
Although some of the language is now considered over-the-top politically incorrect and vulgar, it is of its time and is used with skill by O’Neill whose ear for dialect was always exacting. The lines are delivered with confidence and power making them easier to take.
The Irish Rep’s take on this O’Neill gem makes it live again and makes a great case for its reemergence.
The Emperor Jones (through April 23, 2017)
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.IrishRep.org
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission