One of Eugene O’Neill’s earliest successes, The Emperor Jones finds its title character ruling an unnamed island in the Caribbean. Having fled American justice, Brutus Jones (Obi Abili) exploits the superstitions of the local population to squeeze them dry, convincing them he can only be killed by a silver bullet. When the Cockney trader Henry Smithers (Andy Murray) warns Jones that his reign has come to a premature end, he flees into the forest; at this point, the play turns to expressionism, depicting his failed, phantasmagorical escape.
There is no doubt that the stars of this production are the puppet designer, Bob Flannagan, and the costume designers, Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher. A rather large chorus dresses as trees, their slow movements creating an eerie, shimmering effect. Life-sized skeletons strut around the stage dressed to the nines; pint-sized slave puppets perform a mini-drama for Jones; and a crocodile erupts from the wings to snap at his feet. Even when these fantasies are not in full force, most of the characters wear skin-colored masks that echo but do not fully mimic human faces. The result is profoundly uncanny.
Mr. Abili, too, is an excellent Brutus Jones, strutting around the stage with peacock bravado and wearing a repurposed Pullman porter uniform, replete with phony medals. This wealth of talent makes the production all the more painful to review, since the play itself is rather weak, stumbling from scene to scene with only the incoherent babbling of Jones to string it all together. O’Neill was attempting to critique the U.S. occupation of Haiti, and there are moments when his social commentary comes to the fore, as when Jones tells Smithers, “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 creaks.” But mostly The Emperor Jones proves impenetrable, a wonderful test of stamina for the lead actor and perhaps for the audience as well. Upon leaving the theater, what I had seen immediately evaporated from my mind, and what remained was a sense that I had been let down—not just narratively, but emotionally and intellectually as well.