Theatre review: Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train – gritty, raw & thought-provoking

In its inaugural season, Vancouver’s Glass City Theatre takes us on a wild ride to New York’s Rikers Island in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, currently on stage at Pacific Theatre.

Lucius Jenkins (Carl Kennedy) and Angel Cruz (Robert Olguin) are in segregation at the infamous Rikers Island prison, allowed only one hour each day outside on the roof.  But even their brief time outside their prison cells are in small separate chain-link cages.  Lucius is a serial killer who has recently ‘found’ God while in prison and is awaiting extradition to Florida; Cruz is awaiting his own fate after shooting, but not intending to kill, a religious cult leader who he claims has brainwashed his best friend.

It is in the interaction between these two very different men that this story is most powerful.  Through his characters, Playwright Stephen Guirgis forces us to confront some tough questions about fate and faith, and the blurring of right and wrong when placed within a religious context.  Are we meant to forgive Lucius because he claims to have repented and is now sorry for killing eight people?  Are we meant to forgive Angel because his crime is perpetrated on someone he claims is a religious fraud and yet shows no remorse?

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
Robert Olguin as Angel and Carl Kennedy as Lucius in the Glass City Theatre production of Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train

Both Kennedy and Olguin are spectacular here although I was simply mesmerized by Olguin’s portrayal of the street-wise Latino.  From the opening scene where Angel struggles to remember the Lord’s Prayer, to his attempt at the end with Hail Mary, Olguin hits each note of his character with such precision, that by the end of the show I too was in tears.  Olguin is definitely a new force in Vancouver’s theatre community and I am looking forward to see what he does next.  Not left behind though, Kennedy matches Olguin note-for-note, giving us a much-layered Lucius, leaving just enough doubt to make us question if we are being played or if he is indeed repentant.

Rounding out the cast are the three secondary characters including two prison guards (Evan Frayne and Andrew McNee) and Angel’s defence lawyer (Kerri Norris).  Frayne brings poignancy to the guard who befriends Lucius in his two short scenes and McNee is frighteningly real as the guard who is anything but these inmates’s friend.  Norris does a good job as the public defender who simultaneously sees Angel as a hero and a challenge.

Adding to the gritty realism of the story, all five actors are so precise in their accents that had we not known better we would have sworn these were their own; no small feat with so many stage productions where accents are their downfall.

Set and lighting designer Itai Erdal uses a stark white backdrop for simple projections which pop against Sabrina Evertt’s realistic prison and street garb.  Joel Stephanson’s sound design adds an additional realistic touch with a hip-hop soundtrack that immerses us further into the lives of these characters.  Kudos must go to the crew behind the scenes, including Stage Manager Christie Maxson and Assistant Stage Manager Annie Jang, who are no doubt responsible for the almost magical scene changes.

Director Angela Konrad has orchestrated a cast and technical crew for a show that is near perfect.  Gritty, raw and thought-provoking, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is why I go to the theatre.

If you see only one show this year, this should be it.

5 Out of 5 Stars Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train

By Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Directed by Angela Konrad.  A Pacific Theatre presentation of a Glass City Theatre production.  On stage at Pacific Theatre through April 2, 2011.

Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.

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