Adapted by Emma Reeves
Directed by Joe Tantalo
With ever-increasing confidence, director Joe Tantalo has been honing a lean, visceral approach to staging provocative, often misunderstood, works modern fiction. With COOL HAND LUKE, adapted by Emma Reeves from Donn Pearce’s semi-autobiographical novel, Tantalo and the Godlight Theater Company bring musicality, grit and spirit to a allegorical tale of a Southern chain gang’s struggle for redemption.
Luke (Lawrence Jansen) has a tough time adjusting to civilian lifer after serving with distinction in World War II. Society sees him as a liberator of the oppressed, but Luke finds the label ironic. As he recalls it, he and his fellow soldiers didn’t always receive a hero’s welcome as they marched across Europe. And as the enemy became unpredictable, the Americans followed suit. The Allied troupes saved some villagers, but raped robbed and harassed others. With his psyche scrambled by moral ambiguity and battle fatigue, Joe knocks around his home town looking for trouble Despite the best efforts of his mother (Kristina Doelling), Luke embarks on a life of petty theft and heavy drinking. When the law catches up with him, Luke finds himself sentenced to hard labor and chained together with a motley group of convicts and. At first, Dragline (Mike Jansen), Curly (Lars Drew), Rabbit (Jarrod Zayas) and Society Red (Brett Warnke) don’t know what to make of the “newcock,” who always has a smile on his face. In time, though, the gang comes to embrace Luke as a kind of messiah. No matter how brutally Boss Godfrey (Nick Paglino) and his henchmen (Jason Bragg Stanley and Ken King), try to impose their authority, somehow they cannot break Luke. And as the stakes grow higher, the other inmates discover their own will to be free—or die trying.
Confidently driving the story, Lawrence Jansen neatly embodies the inner demons beneath Luke’s cool exterior. He is matched by a versatile and emotionally raw supporting cast, some of whom morph nimbly into multiple characters. A potent sense of the story’s region and period is evoked by Danny Blackburn and Bryce Hodgson’s original music and by the soulful singing of Julia Torres (who also does an appealing turn as one of Luke’s abettors). Godlight veterans Maruti Evans, (lighting and set design) and Orli Nativ (costumes) give the show an arresting, chiaroscuro visual style that encapsulates the story’s ambiguities eases the show’s novel-like transitions between different time frames and locations.
COOL HAND LUKE continues through May 31 2015. 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison. Tickets 212-279-4200.