Jesus Hopped the “A” Train

 

 It is not often that the acting, directing AND the script of a play are awesome, but “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” by Stephen Adly Guigis at ACT Theatre, deserves a “Triple Crown.”

 “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” takes place at the Rikers Island Prison in New York City, and revolves around the interactions of two inmates, two guards and a public defender lawyer.  Lucius Jenkins, played by Dumi is an extremely articulate African American convicted serial killer who is trying to stall his extradition to Florida, where he will be executed.   Angel Cruz, played by Richard Nguyen Sloniker is a Puerto Rican awaiting trial for justifiable attempted murder. The guard Valdez, played by Ray Tagavilla, is a sadist with what appears to be a short-man complex; the other guard is compassionate, vulnerable, generous and TALL.  Angela Di Marco plays the public defender lawyer who has her own self-destructive issues. 

 In reality as in the play, Rikers Island is indeed the prison from hell with violence, rape, gangs and corrupt correctional officers.   As a sex offender,  Lucius, is segregated from the other prisoners and his only social interactions are with his guards and Angel during the daily one hour exercise session.  Dumi’s performance as Lucius is a tour de force, he plays him as a combination of street-wise jive-talking psychopath and  Southern Black Preacher of the caliber of Martin Luther King.  Lucius has also found spiritual redemption.  In an ironic twist, Lucius actually helps one of the guards turn his life around.  

 Cleverly, the playwright differentiated each character by assigning them different, authentic dialects, so that the audience could immediately “read” them.     The character of Mary Jane Hanrahan, Angel’s lawyer, played by Angela Di Marco, speaks like an uptight well-educated Manhatten lawyer, but has a few secrets about her background.  Valdez, the sadistic guard, speaks with a New York boroughs accent, so the audience immediately assumes, quite rightly, that he is aggressive.  On the other hand the nice guard,  Charlie D’Amico, speaks standard American English with no discernable accent, so the audience immediately likes him and does not categorize him.  Lucius’s African American dialogue is as complex as Shakespeare’s, with a delivery of epic proportions.   Each character had long self-revealing soliloquies to the audience, which were all riveting, but Charlie D’Amico’s, the nice guard’s monologue was especially brilliant. Although this play is a tragedy, humor and wit were embedded in the dialogue, keeping the audience thoroughly engaged.  

 Designed by Deanna L. Zibello, the simple set suggested the austerity of a prison and facilitated very swift scene changes.   The original music by Seattle’ leading hip-hop artist, Christian “Lil Kriz” Beeber, set the tone.  The sound effects, designed by Jay Weinland, were effective, for example, the sound of metal cell doors opening and shutting, in the first scene, left the audience in no-doubt as to where the play was taking place. 

 Besides hiring actors who were up to the challenges the script presented, the director, Desdemona Chiang, made some inspired choices:  she did not resort to gratuitous violence, shouting, or raw anger, instead she allowed the actors to express the vulnerable feelings of the characters underneath their prison personas.  Personally, I appreciated the decibel level (very low) of the before-the-show Spanish rap music.  It suggested the milieu of prison without damaging one’s ear drums.  By directing the actors to play the essential tragedy, rather than playing the lines for laughs, the director was able to bring out the abundant humor in the script. 

 The skill of the playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, was discernable in the first few scenes which contained a lot of comic relief, making the tragic ending watchable.   Generally I cringe when I hear profanity, but in these scenes the profanity was written and delivered with rhythmically poetic cadences, so that I ended up rolling on the floor with laughter.   In the end of the play, however, like several other people, I was crying.  (NB.  The last time I cried during a show was in 1983)  

 At a time when much of Seattle Theatre is doing sit-com fluff or presenting unpleasant gratuitous violence, profanity and shouting, this show makes me have faith that American Theatre can be both entertaining and profound. 

 Jesus Hopped the “A” Train,  Azeotrope Theatre in association with ACT Central Heating Lab .   Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, ACT Theatre,  700 Union Street, Downtown Seattle.  closes June 30, 2012.  Tickets 206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org

Sunday 6/24 2 pm
Thursday 6/28 7:30 pm
Friday 6/29 7:30 pm
Saturday 6/30 2 pm & 8pm 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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