A complex story of suffering turned into a ritualistic, overly symbolic passion play.
By Joel Benjamin
As adapted by Emma Reeves, Donn Pearce’s novel Cool Hand Luke has been transformed from an existential loner-against-the-world drama—as in the well-known 1967 film adaptation which starred Paul Newman as a sassy, sardonic outsider—into a passion play with its requisite Christ figure, two Mary figure and even a few apostle-like prisoners. Luke Jackson (a far too subdued, but macho, Lawrence Jansen) continually extends his arms out, cross-like as if to fortify this impression. He shares a last supper with his fellow inmates of the scary Florida chain gang lorded over by the sadistic Boss Godfrey (Nick Paglino, a handsome caricature of macho sadism).
He has received two years at hard labor as punishment for petty theft but is calm and taciturn in the face of the many humiliations he endures. He does bond with his fellow prisoners as they learn to admire the newcomer, particularly when he wins a hardboiled egg eating contest against winning money for his pals.
He also can’t seem to get his mother out of his mind. Mrs. Jackson (Kirstina Doelling, who also skillfully gives life to two other characters), in Luke’s memories of her, exhorts her wayward son to find religion. She reappears, ghostlike, several times. He also is haunted by the violence he was forced to commit during World War Two.
He escapes three times with Boss Godfrey’s vengeful responses escalating exponentially leading to a tragic ending.
Staged by Joe Tantalo in a stark black box with virtually no scenery except rows of lights, the story unfolds in a series of severe, ritualized scenes, punctuated by glaring lights and thudding sounds, as if Cool Hand Luke were a series of tableaux vivants, effectively draining any drama from the play. Repeatedly, the prisoners line up with their keepers behind them. They literally toe a line and perform the same stylized mime of lifting a pickaxe and slamming it down, their slow-downed motions turning their punishment into a twisty ballet. The only real pain in the 90 minutes was caused by Maruti Evans’ spectator-hostile lighting which continually aimed frighteningly blinding bright spots directly out at the audience.
A young lady named Mary (Julia Torres, rich-voiced and impressive in a small part) begins the show entering through the audience singing a slow, sad song with the words “no more, my Lord,” the sad refrain. She later appears as the one person who gives sanctuary to Luke in one of his escapes from the prison camp. Dragline (Mike Jansen, robust and likeable) narrates the play as if reciting one of the gospels and is Luke’s best friend in the camp. Brett Warnke as the clever, rational Society Red comes across as a bit too refined. Boss Godfrey’s cohort, Boss Kean is played by Jason Bragg Stanley who has the right accent and menacing quality. Jarrod Zayas plays Rabbit, a large man, makes a great impression as he did in the recent production of Deliverance in the same theater. As, respectively, Curly and Carr, Lars Drew and Ken King register vividly in relatively small parts.
Orli Nativ’s costumes were properly grungy and period perfect. The sound design of Ien Denio punctuated the action dramatically as did the original music by Danny Blackburn and Bryce Hodgson. Rick Sordelet’s fight choreography fit perfectly with Mr. Tantalo’s stylized vision.
*Photo: Jason Woodruff
Cool Hand Luke – Godlight Theater Co. through May 31, 2015
59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th St., between Park & Madison Avenues New York, NY
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.59E59.org
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission