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Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train

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Review of Soulpepper’s Production of Guirgis’ Play

You have two inmates in solitary confinement, two prison guards and a lawyer. That is a heady start for drama and violence and it only gets worse when you find out that the venue is Rikers Island. The program informs us that this prison holds more than 8,000 inmates and has been described as a stain on the soul of New York City.  

After seeing Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train you may consider the word stain as a euphemism.

Soulpepper’s production is gripping, dramatic, indeed almost melodramatic and so relentlessly intense that it leaves you almost breathless after a couple of hours.

The action takes place in the two cages holding Lucius (Daren A. Herbert) and Angel (Xavier Lopez). They are in “protective custody” because the other prisoners may devour them if they mingle with them. Lucius is a psychopathic serial killer who murdered eight people. He is loquacious, articulate and has a turn for poetry or at least rhyming couplets. He has become a born-again Christina and can name all the books of the Old Testament backwards and at breakneck speed.

He believes that God has a plan for everyone which, I suppose, includes his brutal killing of innocent people. Lucius is an interesting and powerful character who shows no remorse and no fear. Herbert gives a bravura performance in a highly demanding role as he goes from grandiloquent, almost bombastic in the first act to more humble Christian in the second act as he tries to make contact with Angel.

Angel is a pathetic young Puerto Rican who, in his words “shot Reverend Kim in the ass.” The reverend is the leader of a corrupt cult and he convinced Angel’s friend to join it. As a result, Angel lost his friend. Lopez gives a superb performance as the foul-mouthed, scrawny kid who has little comprehension of his situation. Reverend Kim dies from the gunshot wound regardless of what Angel intended to do. 

The play features two guards. D’Amico is very friendly with Lucius and supplies him with “Oreo cookies” and when caught he is summarily dismissed from his job. What exactly was the filling of those cookies? Gregory Prest handles that small role without any difficulty.

The other guard is Valdez (Tony Nappo) who comes from central casting for sadistic, psychotic thugs who treat prisoners like animals. Nappo gives us an animalistic Valdez who is almost too sadistic to take.

Diana Donnelly plays Mary Jane, a public defender assigned to represent Angel. We accept that she is intelligent, comes from a poor background and is trying to make good as a lawyer. She is somewhat more sympathetic than other public defenders who treat their ‘clients’ with contempt.

Mary Jane wants us to believe that she is a crackerjack lawyer who get acquittals for her accused murderers using her forensic skills. Dressed in a white blouse, sleeves rolled up, and a simple skirt, Mary Jane looks too young to have acquired the skills and trial results that she claims. When Angel first sees her he demands a “real” lawyer.

We want to see one too. No one doubts Donnelly’s acting ability and I wonder why Director Weyni Mengesha lets Mary Jane appear relatively weak. Her conduct in advising Angel to lie on the stand is just plain stupid with horrendous consequences for her and her client. I have difficulty understanding the lawyer and the approach to the character taken by Mengesha and subsequently Donnelly. Otherwise Mengesha directs with a firm hand for the drama that rises to crushing ends for both inmates.

Ken MacKenzie’s set design consists of scaffolding that forms the two cages where the prisoners are kept for 23 hours a day.

This is riveting theatre that kept me glued to my seat and left me using the inmates’ profane language at the end: “holy, feces….” Well, almost.

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Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Trainby Stephen Adly Guirgis continues until February 23, 2020 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca.