In their second production of The Emperor Jones, the Irish Repertory Theater retains the success of their original interpretation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1915 play. An experimental presentation playing with magic realism, The Emperor Jones tells the haunting story of a man’s struggle to escape his inevitable fall from power.
Set in an island in the West Indies, the play follows Brutus Jones (Obi Abili), who has claimed for himself the role of emperor, and used it to line his pockets at the expense of his people. The play opens on Henry Smithers (Andy Murray), as he questions the emptiness of the palace where Brutus Jones resides. He learns from a remaining servant, on her way out, that the rest of the people have fled to the hills. Alarmed, Henry wakes Brutus and tries to warn him of the danger of the oncoming rebellion, but the arrogant emperor assures him that he has a lucky silver bullet in his gun that will keep him safe (the remaining five lead bullets are kept for those who try to stand in his way). However, as the sound of a drum beating from the hills signifies the people’s preparation to find Brutus Jones and kill him, the emperor leaves, planning to flee through the woods to safety.
The woods offer him everything but that. His journey begins well enough, but he is unable to find the food that he had hidden away for himself, and, as night begins to fall, it only gets worse from there. In the heat of the night, as he makes his way through the woods suffering from increasing hunger and exhaustion, he finds himself haunted by a number of terrifying, otherworldly visitations that harken to his past misdeeds. Through imagery of slavery and death, among other terrors, the haunts make Brutus lose his way, and his mind. The only way that Brutus can think to rid himself of each haunt with his gun, but with each of the five lead bullets he fires, he gets closer to that one silver bullet that's supposedly meant for him.
With Brutus the sole character for much of the show, success relies on Obi Abili’s excellent performance as the tormented ruler. Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, Abili captivates with the powerful way he captures Brutus’s descent. Some of the surrounding material becomes somewhat repetitive through extended dance sequences of Brutus struggling through the trees between haunts, and even the nature of some of the haunts themselves, as at times their eeriness feels a little forced. But Abili maintains the strength of the storyline through his powerful portrayal of a man falling from power, life, and himself.