Sunday, September 16, 2018

78 (2018-2019): Review: THE EMPEROR (seen September 14, 2018)

“Lord of Misrule”

The Emperor is Colin Teevan’s riveting theatricalization, slightly over an hour long, of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuścińki’s (1932-2007) controversial 1978 book of that name. I say theatricalization, not dramatization, because the material is essentially a series of monologues providing fascinating information but nonetheless generally lacking the interaction of characters we call drama. Among the controversies the book raised were concerns about its factual accuracy, or what the author himself called “literary reportage.” 
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Gerri Goodstein/
Considered a veiled jab at Poland’s communist regime at the time and its leader, Edward Gierek, it was translated into English in 1983 (when it was named the Sunday Times’s Book of the Year) and, four years later, turned into a play by Michael Hastings and Jonathan Miller for London’s Royal Court Theatre. Teevan’s is a new adaptation. 

Regardless of its relevance to communist Poland in the 1970s, The Emperor’s continuing value is as a coolly satirical, universal reflection on the excesses and abominations of autocracies everywhere, not least the one that’s growing in our midst. 
Temesgen Zeleke, Katrhryn Hunter. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
But the chief reason to see The Emperor is the platform it provides for the diminutive British actress Kathryn Hunter, known for her idiosyncratic characterizations of both male (like King Lear and Richard III), female (Shakespeare’s Cleopatra among them), and even nonhuman characters. 

Her recent New York performances displayed her unusual gifts—partly the result of a car crash in her early 20s—as a “virtuoso physical performer.” Among them were Kafka’s Monkey, in which she played the title role, and director Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she gamboled as Puck. Hunter's present project, which began in England, is a coproduction of Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience; the Young Vic, London; HOME, Manchester, and Les Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg. 
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
Hunter is exceedingly well accompanied by Ethiopian-born musician/singer, Temesgen Zeleke, who sits to one side, performing exquisitely melodic tunes on his five-string krar lyre, and also playing four briefly limned characters. The focus, though, is on Hunter’s chameleon-like transformative powers as, combining her research with considerable inventiveness, she covers nearly a dozen different male roles (none of them Selassie); the book has over 30. For each, she adjusts her posture, gestures, facial expressions, and speech. 
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
Among the characters are a valet; a menial whose sole task is to wipe the emperor’s dog’s pee from people’s footwear; a zookeeper who feeds the animals meat from a silver tray; a servant who carries the emperor’s pillows and must time their placement beneath his feet perfectly; the emperor’s purse bearer, and so on. Each describes his job while filling us in on Selassie’s extravagances and craving for self-enrichment through “development” in a nation desperately needing “reform” to overcome its suffering from hunger and poverty. 
Kathryn Hunter. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
As the people starve, the emperor’s ego is assuaged by the construction of such things as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God, Airport, or His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God, Ring Road and Tunnel. A clip from Jonathan Dimbledy’s powerful 1973 documentary, The Unknown Famine, underlines the disastrous conditions Selassie allowed to fester. Gradually, we learn of the plot to overthrow the emperor and of his ultimate demise at the hands of the Derg government.
Hunter—her wig cropped, scruffy, and gray—wears a uniform that can be civilian or military, its tunic buttoned or unbuttoned, its epaulets in place or removed, as suits each character. She doffs or dons a series of hats and toys with a variety of hand props, like a fly whisk, a cane, or piece of silk. Remarkably limber for a woman in her early 60s, she moves, relative to each character, with fluid grace or puppet-like awkwardness, as per Imogen Knight’s movement staging. During a scene expressing the court’s venture into “International Life,” she even dances funkily to a disco beat (bringing a surprised audience member on stage to join her).
Kathryn Hunter, Temesgen Zeleke. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
Ti Green’s set, perceptively lit by Mike Gunning, is an open, wood-floored space, onto which a high, white curtain is sometimes drawn or withdrawn. Using little more than a chair, Hunter—flawlessly directed by Walter Meierjohann—delivers her monologues in spotlighted areas, shifting from one to the other as she changes character, the transitions being marked by explosive sounds created by Paul Arditti. When needed, informative titles flash on an upstage background; unfortunately, they’re fuzzy, hard to read, and vanish too quickly.

The Emperor is brief, thematically pointed, and perfectly executed. If you’ve never seen Kathryn Hunter, the moment is ripe.


Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through September 30