Sunday, January 17, 2010

Off-Broadway Delights, Part III: The Irish Rep

The Irish Repertory Theatre is probably my favorite Off-Broadway venue. The creativity and skill behind its productions is all the more remarkable when you get a glimpse of its postage stamp of a stage and then see what they can do with it. You never know what you’re going to see there, as it explores its mission of presenting works by Irish and Irish American playwrights, ranging from lightweight fare like the musical comedy Ernest in Love to under-appreciated dramatic classics like The Emperor Jones—both from this season.

Irish Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly, serving as director, has breathed new life into Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, a play from 1920 that is generally viewed today as a musty, racially insensitive, and pretty much unplayable psychodrama about one Brutus Jones, an African American escaped murderer who has ensconced himself as the self-proclaimed and decidedly despotic emperor of an isolated Island.

When we meet Mr. Jones, all stagger and threat, he is near the end of his reign, on the brink of being deposed and executed by rebels. For the bulk of the one-act play, we journey with him as he flees through the jungle, chased by both the rebels and his personal and racial memories (à la Carl Jung) and demons that haunt his every waking minute.

O’Reilly, aided and abetted by a remarkable company onstage and off, has turned this into a glorious and triumphant theatrical event. John Douglas Thompson offers a powerful performance as Brutus Jones, giving us a complex and difficult character, much as he did in his portrayal of Othello in last season’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy with the Theater For A New Audience. The ensemble of players that surround Thompson turn in solid supportive work, but the real brilliance of the production is the use of puppets, masks, original music, lighting effects, and well-choreographed movement to create a truly theatrical experience and to thoroughly engage the audience in Jones’s flight for his life.

In recent weeks, The Emperor Jones transferred to the SoHo Playhouse to make way for Ernest in Love, a revival of an Off-Broadway musical from 1960 based on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest.

This is a small show, ideally suited to the Irish’s Rep’s tiny stage. “Charming” is an adjective that admittedly does not suggest “must-see theater,” but it is a most appropriate description to apply to a musical with charming tunes, charmingly acted by a charming company of players.

Not surprisingly, the best lines come straight from Wilde. I’ll cite one I especially like, Lady Bracknell’s reaction to catching Jack on bended knee in the act of proposing to her daughter Gwendolen, said in a most imperious tone: “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.”

The show’s creators, Ann Croswell (book and lyrics) and Lee Pockriss (music) drew inspiration from Wilde in at least one of the show’s tunes, “A Handbag Is Not A Proper Mother,” in which we are given the clever rhyming pair of “bachelor” and “satchel or” in a way that actually makes sense, and which leads us to our trivia question of the day: In what other musical from the current season will we find a clever rhyme for “bachelor?”

Regardless of whether your tastes run to chamber musicals or to psychological drama, or to anything else in between, for that matter, the Irish Rep is willing to tackle it and uncover its hidden magic. Kudos to all involved for understanding and sharing the magic of theater.

Oh, and that trivia question? Check out the song "The Begat" in Finian's Rainbow, in which lyricist Yip Harburg has rhymed "bachelor" with "natchu'ler."

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