16 May 2018.
“All I did was shoot him in the ass“.
Angel Cruz lands himself in Rikers Island prison after shooting the Reverend Kim. Although he only shot him in the ‘ass’, the reverend dies following complications in hospital. Angel is allowed out of his cell for an hour a day to get some fresh air, in a cage.
Lucius Jenkins murdered eight people. His lawyers are trying to stop his extradition from New York to Florida, where he would face the death penalty. Lucius claims to have found God. While he waits to hear his fate, he enjoys his hour of sunshine and cigarettes in an adjacent cage to Angel Cruz.
Stephen Adley Giurgis’ much lauded play revolves around the conversations they have during their daily encounters. There are occasional interruptions from their prison guards (one well-meaning, the other sadistically controlling) and visits from Angel’s lawyer, who finds herself drawn deeper into his case, and increasingly compromised by it. Otherwise it’s all about the back and forth between Lucius and Angel.
Giurgis’ script asks many questions. Does the motive behind acts of violence matter? Can good people do bad things, and vice versa? Is it possible to achieve genuine redemption? Is there any justice in this world? Does God exist?
This isn’t of course a debating society, it’s a high security prison. So any philosophising arises incidentally – punctuated by fuck this and fuckin’ that, concealed beneath banter and taunts, with life lessons learned via hard knocks and moments of vulnerability.
The play relies heavily on monologue and duologue to advance matters, and with characters confined to cells, cages and interview rooms there isn’t much in the way of distraction from the wordy and winding script. Fortunately it’s clever, thoughtful and often darkly funny, even if it doesn’t ultimately offer any neat answers to may of the questions it poses.
Louis Price’s design is simple but effective. Two grey squares of concrete, over which suspended mesh-filled frames hover, define the limited space of cages. To the rear, the stage is dominated by a huge Stars and Stripes backdrop. Much of what Giurgis’ characters have to say has universal resonance, but the flag reminds us that the context feels quintessentially American. Not mom and apple pie though, in this instance it’s the death penalty, religious cults, serial killers and social inequality.
With a meaty script like this, all eyes are on the actors. Such a short run offers limited time to settle into roles and inevitably there’s the odd uneven moment, especially when it comes to accent and tone. Overall though, director Jake Murray draws strong performances from his cast of five. Danny Solomon and Faz Singhateh excel in the two lead roles. Solomon’s Angel is a vulnerable blend of cockiness and naivety, convinced that he has done nothing wrong despite the fatal outcome of his actions. Singhateh is compelling as evangelising killer Lucius, his performance cleverly toying with the audience’s sympathies as he slips between charming bonhomie and cold-bloodedness.
Elysium Theatre deserve much credit for bringing Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train to Manchester for the first time. It’s a tight, well-paced and thoughtful staging that lets Giurgis’ smart, searching play shine.