Theatre for a New Audience, much to my pleasure, dives into their new season with a fascinating, although slightly distancing investigation on what it means to be Emperor of a small African nation in the early 1900’s. In the U.S. premiere of The Emperor, directed with structure and simplicity by Walter Meierjohann (the site-specific Romeo and Juliet in The Victoria Baths), the life and eventually downfall of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, born Ras Tafari Makonnen, is chronicled through the compelling and humorous stories of those who operated under his rule. Based on Ryszard Kapuściński’s celebrated and controversial 1978 book of the same title with a solid adaptation by Colin Teevan (Netflix’s “Rebellion“), The Emperor explores political and supreme power by giving voice and clarity to Selassie’s many servants (including his pillow-bearer, purse-bearer, and dog-urine wiper), to government bureaucrats, and finally, to the students and citizens that eventually opposed Selassie’s supreme sovereign power, and forced the ending of his imperial reign in 1974.
Deliciously portraying each and every one of those sublime characters is the shape-shifting virtuoso, Kathryn Hunter (Puck in Julie Taymor/TFANA’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with a musically strong assist by Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke, founder of Krar Collective. He ushers us in at the very beginning with his melodic authentic melodies of the krar (music: Dave Price), setting the stage for Hunter to wander out into the spotlight, designed by lighting guru, Mike Gunning (set design: Ti Green; sound: Paul Arditti), to give us a depth of focus to this strong-minded parable about power in decline. This co-production from the Young Vic, HOME, and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, seldom rises too far into the land of greatness and superiority, but the overall effect is worthy of our attention. It is odd that a British white woman is playing these numerous Ethiopian characters, but as I am all for color blind casting, the overall effect is minimally complicated. The program notates that by having a “Western woman play all, or most of, the roles, the production states from the outset that this is not the thing itself. The illusion of this distant world must be created by the actress and the production, we are invited to suspend our disbelief“. She does her transformations like a rubbery Bill Irwin, beautifully and hilariously becoming each with such clarity that reminders are not required. The range and stylistic approaches to all is inspired, making the choices clear and definitive.
Structuring the piece around the typing of Kapuściński’s tarnished view of Ethiopian history (beautiful work by video designer, Louis Price), Selassie’s illusionary and mystical placement of self as the King of Kings, his distinguished Highness of the court, a God among men, is solidified with the bows of others servicing the man for a higher purpose, usually their own. The music and the men float through, like a “mute rebuke to the excesses of the court“, and with the pedigrees running wild, this fairy tale of the dignified Imperial starts to show signs of cracks and tremors of fantastical disbelief. The loyalty of his court that holds reign over the deep corruption of the King and his followers, seen as a blatant parallel to the GOP of today, is a beautifully relevant theatrical creation of their greedy illusions, formulated solely for the purpose of keeping the Wizard of Oz aloft and out of reach. It’s a smart angled look at a slice of history that bursts into our present day dilemma. Hunter delivers the true and more convoluted subject; the nature of power and contemporary demagogues and the heavy burden of his greatest achievements, with a shattering attention to detail and essential play that joyfully and intelligently resonates into the air of the Theatre for a New Audience.