Sunday, January 15, 2012

Theatre review: "Jesus Hopped the A Train" from barebones productions

More and more I’m getting the feeling that barebones productions consistently gravitates to dark, profanity-laden explorations of nasty people. The latest example is Jesus Hopped the A Train, a much admired work from 2000 by Stephen Adly Guirgis. This follows on the grinding heels of violent white trash in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe and Bug (2010 and 2007), sleazy, greedy salesmen out to destroy each other in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (2009), Jews complicit in Auschwitz murders in The Grey Zone by Tim Blake Nelson (2006) and Bryony Lavery’s Frozen (2005) dwelling on a serial-murdering pedophiliac. These productions always come across as expertly acted and produced with polish and style. Yet, what thinking, what orientation is behind such choices?

This time the play focuses on two killers of limited intelligence, with vocabularies to match, awaiting sentencing while in prison hovered over by a guard who looks for every opportunity to beat the shit out of them.

Yes, this play has been praised for explorations of faith and morality, about taking responsibility for one’s life and deeds, dichotomies between guilt and innocence, about redemption, freedom, good versus evil. You name it; it’s probably there beneath the volatile surface. The script does indeed call forth the dark shadows between black and white, portraying a mixed race cast of characters. While Guirgis exposes all such issues to simmer and burn under a briefly seen sun, he makes few salient points, as if telling things as they are, not how they should be. He has, though, come up with a thorough exploration of two complex and unpredictable main characters seen across the divide between unrepentant, self-assured violence and confused innocence. They seethe with intensity, especially as exceptionally portrayed by two New York actors with major credits.

Essentially this concentrates on dialogue between Lucius Jenkins, a born-again, self-confessed multiple killer and Angel Cruz (uh-uh, an angel on a cross) a confused young Puerto Rican who tried to take the law into his own hands by shooting a religious cult leader who had brainwashed Angel’s closest pal. In two roof cages, where they get one hour’s relief a day from solitary confinement, they heatedly argue about belief in God and about the meaning of what they’ve done which put them there. These don’t seem, though, conclusive, focused exchanges which could provoke us outsiders to ponder the issues. Also there are intermittent scenes showing Angel with his court-assigned attorney whose motivations are more personal than compassionate. Plus she and two prison guards occasionally directly tell the audience what makes them tick.

Raul Castillo’s portrayal of Angel stays vividly alive, calling forth sympathy beneath a constantly combative exterior, tough of necessity, sorrowfully wounded by fate. As Lucius, Edwin Lee Gibson has a far more complicated role to play, superbly bringing out the complex permutations of Lucius’ seeming rationality, his crazy pleasure in killing and his belief that, having chosen God, he lives in some state of grace.

California-based actor Leandro Cano is also in the cast as the brutal guard Valdez and Elena Passarello interprets attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan. Both make their non-stop harshness totally convincing. Meanwhile Derrick Sanders’ direction keeps the staging and pacing constantly dynamic and compelling.

You might find it interesting that Guirgis actually had a close friend who joined a cult and whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to de-program. Guirgis’s resultant anger, he says, made him a lapsed-Catholic re-assessing God. He also was a public school student in Harlem and a violence prevention counselor in New York City prisons. No doubt he knows the facts behind what he says. But I have to wonder, having told us what he thinks about such people, what he’d like us to think while we remain outside, emotionally unconnected to those he portrays.

Equally, I can’t help wondering what barebones wants to tell us, so often calling forth disturbing subjects about people with whom we can neither identify nor empathize.

barebones productions presents Jesus Hopped The A Train through January 29th at The New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. 1-888-71TICKETS (1-888 718 4253),

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