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Locked Down
By James Yeara

Jesus Hopped the A Train

By Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Danielle Skraastad

StageWorks/Hudson, through Oct. 9

Angel (Daniel Henriquez) kneels in his cell at Riker’s Island trying to pray: “Our father who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” He starts over, screwing up again and again, each time more desperately comically. Other inmates yell out an unusual call and response: “Shut the fuckitty fuck up.” “You shut the fuckitty fuck up, mother fucker.” “No, you shut the fuckitty fuck up.”

Fans of HBO’s prison drama Oz will be fans of StageWorks/Hudson’s current production of Jesus Hopped the A Train; fans of Law and Order’s neat wrap-it-up-quick justice, too. But also fans of divine justice, fans of comedy, fans of existentialism, fans of the profane, fans of the sacred—and, most importantly, fans of theater. In Jesus Hopped the A Train, StageWorks/Hudson creates another regional premiere of a play that challenges its audience as much as it makes its audience laugh.

Director Danielle Skraastad, star of many previous StageWorks/Hudson productions (and alumna of New York City productions of Jesus), keeps her five- person cast focused, exact, believable, interesting, funny, and stunning—all with an audience-friendly but tight, playwright-pleasing pace.

This is a production that hums, and the acting stays in the realm of the real and the honest. With a play juggling as many issues, ideas, characters and stories as this one does, Skraastad, cast and crew are to be lauded for balancing the malice and the mirth so that neither is lost nor overwhelms the other. An audience leaves remembering the laughs but also thinking about faith, an issue addressed in the play without mind-numbing platitudes or soul-shrinking clichés.

Jesus Hopped the A Train focuses on the aforementioned Angel Cruz, arrested for popping a cap literally in the ass of a Reverend Moon-ish would-be messiah who has brainwashed Angel’s best friend. Angel’s reasons may be noble, but his acts are not, and his faith is as full of doubts as a living human’s should be. Henriquez’s Angel rages, pouts, despairs, pleads and joys. That Henriquez keeps each emotion clear and focused keeps the audience engaged in the play.

After being beaten and raped by other inmates, Angel finds himself in lockdown. Other characters are similarly locked down, physically or spiritually: the wonderfully complex Lucius Jenkins (force of nature Charles E. Wallace); the tortured and nearly burnt-out defense attorney Mary Jan Hanrahan (a frazzled but sympathetic Elisabeth S. Rodgers); and the brutal prison guard Valdez (A-Men Rasheed), who carries the weight of our expectations to punish lawbreakers yet preserve his humanity.

When Valdez spits at the born-again serial murderer Lucius, “God hates you,” after one of Lucius’ typically lyrical bursts of devotion, the squirming in the audience is intense. Lucius is a particularly vicious mass murderer, but Valdez is a particularly vicious guard, and understanding the reasons why puts the audience in an uncomfortable position. That’s the stuff theater is made on.

And that’s the stuff Jesus Hopped the A Train is full of. It’s a rich, funny, exciting play that makes you think and laugh, a rarity in the area but the usual outcome at StageWorks/Hudson.

Ghostly Poetry

Tongue of a Bird

By Ellen McLaughlin, directed by Bruce T. MacDonald

Main Street Stage, North Adams, Mass., through Oct. 8

Tongue of a Bird is strange and unsettling, and I didn’t want it to end. Main Street Stage Artistic Director Bruce T. MacDonald has assembled a nearly perfect cast of actors for this all-woman ensemble piece, a poetical quasi-ghost story about loss, motherhood, forgiveness and release.

Melissa Quirk plays Maxine, a search pilot brought back to her hometown in the mountains as a last resort by the mother of a girl missing in the woods for 11 days. Maxine is confident about her unblemished record as a finder of lost hikers and lyrical about the landscape below her. (Main Street’s stage, painted over with fluffy grey clouds, has been transformed from a black box into a dreamy realm.) But Zofia, the Polish grandmother who raised her, is mysteriously resistant to the idea of letting Maxine move back in for the duration of the search. As we discover, the death of Maxine’s mother left a gap that both joins Zofia and her granddaughter and pushes them apart. On stage, Maxine divides her time between mothering the two bereft mothers and dealing with her own demons.

Quirk’s rapport with both women—Judyth Kanner, who plays Zofia with a wonderful Old World spaciness and Beth Hahn as Dessa, the school-bus-driving single mother, as down-to-earth as they come—is what makes Tongue come alive. (The title, by the way, comes from a metaphor for the black rubber protector shoved between the teeth of patients going in for shock treatment, an image that, while perhaps fitting, is kind of creepy at the same time.) Playwright McLaughlin, who was part of the talented all-female ensemble in Top Girls at Williamstown this past July, gives her characters dialogue that is very real yet heightened at the same time.

Just a tad less satisfying are the scenes where Maxine confronts the specters of Charlotte, the missing girl, played by Lindsay Hebb, and Judy Pieschel as Maxine’s mother Evie. Bloody and deathly pale, Charlotte’s “ghost” evokes both teenage zombie movies and The Lovely Bones, but her horrifying presence onstage is problematic, and her exchanges with Quirk’s Maxine less compelling than with Kanner and Hahn. Pieschel isn’t quite as successful in making us accept McLaughlin’s language as the rest of the cast; coupled with her odd get-up, an aviatrix’s earflapped cap, scarf, and duster, her character never grabs as the others do.

Given the range of emotions delivered by the extremely capable Quirk, I think MacDonald does her a disservice by merely blacking out the stage between scenes, in mid-howl as it were. Some sort of sound transition is definitely called for. And I think it was unnecessarily specific to say that the play takes place in the Adirondacks. The exact location never figures in the story, and, in fact, other productions have called the setting Maine or left it unnamed altogether. But taken as a whole, Main Street Stage’s production of Tongue of a Bird is too good to miss.

—Kathy Ceceri

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