Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
The Bloodless Jungle
In the unfortunate world of American politics it seems that a man or woman running for public office is no longer judged by their own qualities. In order to swing votes, rival campaigns resort to researching family members, friends and spouses of the opposing candidate in order to find a weakness that can be exploited. Mudslinging has become a highly specialized art form.
This is the theme of the gripping new drama The Bloodless Jungle by Cleveland playwright Peter Lawson Jones. The show is being produced by Ensemble Theatre in their intimate Playground Theatre and is directed by Terrence Spivey.
Ethan St. John (Robert Hunter) is an outgoing servant of the people who, through the hard work of his staff, has won his first election as State Representative. His workers reflect his strong dedication to inclusion and consist of his white campaign manager and longtime college roommate Cyrus Templeton (Dean Courtis), black campaign office worker Malik Washington (Anthony Lanier), and Latino campaign volunteer Tio Villanueva (Santino Montanez). He is also strongly supported by his wife Sydney St. John (Eva Rodriguez).
After serving a brilliant four-year term in the State Capital he comes to the attention of H. Henderson Hill (Greg White) who is what many consider to be "the power behind the throne" having groomed many a candidate for national office. The plan is to run Ethan in the battle for a pivotal seat in Congress against a twenty year incumbent. There is one snagJ.J. Jones (Lashawn Little) a childhood friend turned drug abuser and convicted rapist, has shown up at campaign headquarters. Using his influence, Ethan finds J.J. a job and he seems to be on the road to recovery although he is cautioned by Ethan about his new girlfriend (a separated wife whose divorce is not final).
As Ethan dives into the new campaign, the press in the form of Laura Larkin (Miranda Scholl) clamors to know more about him, his past, and his friends. Laura is also Cyrus Templetons friend with benefits, further complicating the situation. When J.J. is arrested for rape and battery Ethan is suddenly faced with some terrible decisions. Does he support his lifelong friend or yield to the pressure of the press and his new campaign manager H. Henderson Hill and throw J.J. under the bus?
While suitably acted in a brilliantly designed set, the show is not without its flaws, the first being its length. Weighing in at around two and a half hours it could use some tightening up of some of the scenes. The other problem deals with the preparedness of the actors. Opening night jitters aside, there seemed to be a repeated problem of missed cues, garbled speech and mistakes. Hopefully as the production gains stride these errors will disappear.
One thing the production has going for it is the closeness of the actors to each other. As an audience member you really feel the friendship and love between the characters. You find yourself wishing that you could be part of this inner circle.
Robert Hunter is charismatic as Ethan and earns the focus of the audience in every scene he is in. It would be easy to vote for him no matter what office he ran for. Hunter's Ethan and Eva Rodriguez as wife Sydney are lovely together without being mushy. Dean Courtis as Cyrus is the consummate best friend who is not afraid to fight the odds for his chum. Miranda Scholl does a fine turn as the eager reporter who cares deeply about Ethan and Dean but is forced to deliver the dirt to her editor. Greg White plays the bombastic H. Henderson Hill who sees politics as a win at all cost, take no prisoners situation. Anthony Lanier as Malik and Santino Montanez as Tio provide comic relief as the two office workers who attempt to bridge the gap between their diverse cultures. Lastly, LaShawn Little as J.J. brings a world weary presence of a man who has suffered much and only asks for a chance to redeem himself.
The set is laid out in a way that not an inch of space is wasted. In the small confines of the Playground Theatre five separate areas are mapped out with careful detail and just the right amount of props. This set-up eliminates any elaborate scene changes between acts.
With the fertilizer factories in full swing this election year, The Bloodless Jungle brings a refreshing behind-the-scenes look at the political process. It is a story of true friendship, values, and dedication to making the world a better place ... in other words a work of fiction. It is well worth the effort to see this one.
The Bloodless Jungle at Ensemble Theatre through October 2, 2016, with show times Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Note that tickets for Saturday, September 24, 2016, are sold out. All tickets are $15 for general admission seating and group discounts are available. Tickets may be purchased by calling (216) 202-0938 or online at www.ensembletheatreCLE.org.