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A Regal Thompson in "The Emperor Jones"

Written by: Eugene O'Neill
Directed by: Ciaran O’Reilly
Starring: John Douglas Thompson, Henry Smithers, Michael Akil Davis, Sinclair Mitchell

Director Ciaran O’Reilly has done a brilliant job in staging Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 psychological thriller about the self-appointed emperor of a Caribbean backwater whose “subjects” suddenly turn on him. In this Irish Repertory Theatre production, John Douglas Thompson is overpowering as Brutus Jones, a black American who has fled from a Southern chain gang and, persuading the locals that he can be killed only with a silver bullet, takes over in a “revolution” that removes the erstwhile chief.

Dressed as he assumes befits an emperor, Jones wears a blue coat with gold epaulets, jeweled pins, brown boots, and a crown of silver leaves. He speaks illiterate black English and exudes brutality. Figuring his tenure is limited, he squeezes his subjects with taxes and stashes the loot in foreign banks.

As crooked as Jones is Henry Smithers (Peter Cormican), a white British trader who helped the newcomer get his start and now sucks up to him.

O’Neill’s Emperor may be an unschooled chain-gang escapee, but the author makes it clear that there’s not a lot of difference between him and the big-time white crooks back home.

Brutus explains to Smithers, “Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does. For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks. (reminiscently) If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.”

But when Smithers reveals that the local blacks have disappeared from his “court” and are meeting to devise charms against the silver bullet, reality shifts. Brutus must make his escape through the forest to the coast, where he hopes to be picked up by a French gunboat that can take him to Martinique.

The trip through the forest tracks Jones’s psychological disintegration as he progresses from arrogance to fear to terror and madness. His imagination transforms every shape and sound into a threat. In his stage direction, O’Neill writes, for example, “From the formless creatures on the ground in front of him comes a tiny gale of low mocking laughter like a rustling of leaves. They squirm upward toward him in twisted attitudes.”

The forest of floating blue and green striped fabric tree trunks (by Charlie Corcoran) hide and reveal giant puppets and masked actors that haunt Jones with representations of his real and historical past. The puppets (by Bob Flanagan) embody one of Jones’s victims as well as a chain gang overseer and convicts who wear striped pants and wield pick axes. The guard strikes Jones with a whip.

He is threatened by the crocodile god (Michael Akil Davis) and the terrifying beaked witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell), who he fears will demand payment for his sins.

His hallucinations take him back in race memory imagine whites – puppet-headed men squiring women puppets –attending a slave auction. And he is on the block. In hatred and fear, he demands, “Is dis a auction? Is you sellin’ me like dey uster befo’ de war? And you sells me? And you buys me?” He shoots his pistol at the visions of auctioneer and the planter.

O’Reilly creates a surreal mood with the help of Flanagan’s supernatural puppets and masks, Antonia Ford-Robert ’s fantastical costumes, and eerie evocative music by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson. The apparitions move to Barry McNabb dreamlike choreography.

But the soul of the production is Thompson’s powerful, expressionistic and disturbing performance.

The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre at Soho Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
New York City
(212) 691-1555
Opened December 22, 2009; closes January 31, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg



Kevin's Digital Week 8 -A Vision and Bohemia

Blu-ray of the Week
La Bohème
Robert Dornhelm’s film of Puccini’s melodious opera might intersperse black and white sequences with vivid color for the familiar story of bohemian artists populating the garrets of Paris, but that’s not why anyone’s watching. Instead, it’s because of the biggest operatic names currently going: Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon. Netrebko, not only ridiculously photogenic — even when Mimi wastes away from TB — but also a terrific actress and splendid singer, fares better than her co-star, who plays Rodolfo with little sense that the camera moves in far closer than even a first-row seat in the opera house.

The movie’s minuses are that cast members (including nice turns by Nicole Cabell as Musetta and George von Bergen as Marcello) lip-synch badly, and the musical balances are hit or miss, with the orchestra drowning out singers even in intimate moments. Overall, La Bohème is a perfectly good Blu-ray transfer, with the colors of both the locations and Puccini’s glorious music meshing well. Extras include a long interview with Dornhelm, shorter talks with the singers, and a 28-minute making-of featurette.

DVD of the Week
Visions of Europe
(Acorn Media)
This 10-disc set comprises a dozen programs from the excellent public television series (originated at WLIW on Long Island) that feature aerial shots of dazzling locations all over the European continent, from London to Athens. Not only is this high-definition footage dazzling in and of itself—how can you go wrong with the natural wonders and man-made monuments and buildings of Italy, France, Greece, Austria, Germany and England?—but, combined with astute and sparing narration, along with well-chosen music (from classical pieces to traditional and popular tunes), this is an exhilarating journey across a continent.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve already visited any of these places or are only hoping to someday. Now, what we really need is for the entire Visions of Europe series to be released on Blu-ray.

Corporate Vampires in "Daybreakers"

Written and directed by: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig
With: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Michael Dorman, Claudia Karvan, Sam Neill, Isabel Lucas

Australian writer-directors and special-effects artists Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig's gore-soaked shocker Daybreakers unfolds in a dystopian future where vampires constitute 95% of the world’s population and most humans are imprisoned in factory farms, systematically drained of blood and discarded when their veins run dry.

Despite the futuristic setting, the vampires are strictly old-school: There are no sparkly-skinned, undead heartthrobs mooning after moody teen girls, and plenty of predatory monsters who like nothing more than sinking their fangs into a nice, warm throat. But while the film’s future setting is sleek and filled with clever details, the story, in which one good vampire teams up with a scrappy band of free-range humans to fight the power, is timeworn and predictable. And while the copious gore will appeal to hardcore horror buffs, it will alienate more mainstream audiences, along with many sci-fi fans who might otherwise warm to the movie’s thinly veiled digs at money-grubbing business moguls and authority figures.

The year is 2019, ten years after a plague swept the world and left it swarming with vampires. Ruthless businessmen like Charles Bromley (Neill) have made a killing supplying blood to the thirsty masses. But demand is rapidly exceeding supply, and a growing population of “subsiders” — blood-deprived vamps who’ve degenerated into scaly, winged beasts — is scaring the hell out of civilized vampire citizens. Amid growing civil unrest, principled scientist Edward Dalton (Hawke) abandons his research into concocting an artificial blood substitute for Bromley’s corporation to join the human resistance, a small band of survivors whose leader (Dafoe) has proof that vampirism can be cured. But can it be cured before the last living human is caught and sucked dry by increasingly desperate vampires?

The nightmarish future against which the Spierigs (whose only previous credit is the goofy 2003 zombie comedy Undead) set their story is fully and effectively imagined, from the grey, glass-and-steel architecture that reflects the cold soullessness of vampires, to the coffee bars where cups of java come with blood instead of milk and the corporate blood farm where naked, comatose people are suspended in metal frames and connected to tubes that extract their blood with dehumanizing efficiency. The police round up homeless vampires like stray dogs, the military is filled with adrenaline-fueled thugs, and ordinary vampires, hooked on their creature comforts, are easily persuaded to set aside whatever consciences they have in the name of security.

But the story under this rich surface is simplistic and derivative; its influences including Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, written in 1954 and filmed three times to date; the 2006 movie Ultraviolet; and even Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, the pioneering sci-fi allegory about rapacious businessmen, a ruthlessly exploited underclass and the complacent general population that would rather not know the human price of their comfy lives.

The Spierigs assembled a strong cast, but even their best efforts — notably by Neill, whose Bromley is the ultimate vampire squid, tentacles wrapped around the face of this scary new world — can’t pump any real life into the bloodless script.

 For more by Maitland McDonagh:

Sizzling Ballroom Revue "Burn the Floor"

Created & Directed by Jason Gilkison
With: Henry Byalkov, Sasha Farber, Anya Garnis, Patrick Helm, Pasha Kovalev, Peta Murgatroyd, Trent Whiddon,  Damian Whitewood, Robin Windsor

It starts with a light ball setting off two figures; she is in black underwear. Hot Latin drums keep a frenetic double time. Then for a change of pace comes a Lady in white silk and a man in a tux; they waltz and execute twirls through the air in a way you hadn’t seen. After that, 20s/30s jazz dancing; the guy wears a fedora and vest. A sailor and his partner jitterbug. A woman in pink is squired by a guy in a black leather jacket. (Costumes are by Janet Hine.)

The choreography is sophisticated and sensual. Some of the sounds are swing, some are brassy. The production is gorgeous. In one subtle exciting number, the female dancer is blindfolded and she dances with six men, then walks away seductively. A tango is campy.

Burn the Floor is an exciting review of ballroom dancing through the decades, from Latin and Afro-Brazilian rhythms to modern jazzy idioms. Through you never saw any of this in a real ballroom. The numbers, the wild fast movements, come out of competitive dancing that these couples have done all over the world. Their origins span the globe from Australia to Russia and Latin America.

The group has been touring since 1999 to over 160 cities in 30 countries. Some met on the competition circuit. They are ballet trained and do ballroom with a contemporary edge. The duos change. Most of the dancers are 18 or 19 years old. It’s a high energy craft. They insist it's not jazz dancing, though in some cases I’d beg to differ.

In any event, it’s a thrilling genre, not to be missed for those who love the dance.

Burn the Floor
Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th Street
New York, NY
Opened August 2, 2009, closes January 10, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:


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