This year the Dramat freshman production is Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the A Train.” Each member of the cast and crew belongs to the class of 2007. The script is deliciously complex and the set and the music help the viewer imagine the setting of Riker’s Island Prison in the late 1990s. But overwhelmingly, the show has a patina of freshman greenness and uncertainty. Props are employed conservatively and reluctantly, and often the actors seem rushed and insincere when delivering their lines. Though Guirgis’ script is emotional and complex enough to make the production entertaining overall, individual missteps mar the quality of the piece.
The play runs an hour and 40 minutes without an intermission. The story unfolds through a complicated sequence of intertwining monologues and vignettes regarding life at Riker’s Island.
Besides learning about the hopes and struggles of main inmates, Lucius Jenkins (Louis Daniels ’07) and Angel Cruz (Dennis Tristani ’07), the audience is offered an extensive view into the life of defense attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan (Katie Reynolds ’07) and receives a more limited snapshot of prison guard Charlie D’Amico (John Peretti ’07).
The dense content requires that many lines be said and many developments created in under two hours. But the actors sometimes appear a little too cognizant of this fact and over-eager to quicken the pace. Daniels, particularly, talks at the speed of a high school debater; thus he is sometimes hard to understand.
Reynolds, Tristani, and Daniels all stumble over words at times because of their rapid vocal velocities. Real people misspeak every day; Freudian slips are an embarrassing fact of life. But this is theater. Audiences are used to watching painstakingly edited shows and movies in which actors orate flawlessly.
In addition, the awkward use of props and blocking detracts from the play’s quality. Valdez (Alex Munns ’07), an unfriendly prison guard, treats Angel Cruz and Lucius Jenkins poorly. In one scene, Valdez supposedly spits in Angel’s face. The two stand so that the audience has an unobstructed view of both faces, and thus playgoers are privy to the most arid loogey ever hocked. Simply put, the spitting is all sound and no saliva; the staging of the actors did nothing to alleviate the artificial nature of the interaction.
Also, throughout the play, both Lucius and Angel “smoke” cigarettes. Because the play is performed in Trumbull’s Nick Chapel, where smoking is prohibited, the actors merely finger the cigarettes with the finesse of children playing with those stogey-shaped sticks of bubble gum. When the inmates throw the supposedly spent cigarettes to the ground and squash them with their shoes, the cigarettes flatten and spill out their untouched contents — a distracting maneuver.
In the same way that improperly employed props reinforce the fact that the story is merely fiction, poor costuming and makeup reinforce the idea that these people are merely pretending to be characters. For example, Lucius Jenkins is continually harassed by guards and inmates for being emaciated and sickly. Jenkins has HIV and, according to the insults he receives, supposedly the disease has wreaked havoc on his body, making him puny and atrophied. But Daniels, who plays Jenkins, looks as though he’s no stranger to Payne Whitney. Clothing more modest than a thin wife-beater and the skillful employment of makeup would alleviate this problem.
Perhaps the act of watching theater requires a “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of the viewer.
Perhaps the theatergoer’s job is to fill in the blanks when the script calls for the actors’ doing something that would be repulsive. But “Jesus Hopped the A Train” is no “Our Town.” Because the play addresses serious themes like religion, the harshness of prison, and the efficacy of the American justice system, cutting corners in acting out the grittiness of the script feels incongruous.
The lackadaisical use of objects sometimes makes the play feel more like an attenuated mime than the heart-rending, full-volume drama it deserves to be. The script is superb, and the production is redeemed by the quality of the story told, but certain problems make this production of the play only memorable and not inspirational.