The drumbeat, at first, is enough to drive you crazy. Arrive even a few minutes early to American Century Theater's production of "The Emperor Jones," and you'll be treated to nearly a half-hour of live percussion, which begins preshow and continues well into the play's opening scene. Courtesy of Barbara Weber, the beat is strong and insistent -- and when it finally falls silent, your ears will be grateful for the rest.
Of course, the rhythm's ability to get under your skin is all part of the experience. "The Emperor Jones," Eugene O'Neill's 1920 expressionist drama, is about one man's descent from power to madness. A brief scene with an estate overseer named Smithers (John Tweel) establishes that Brutus Jones (Bus Howard), a former Pullman porter and convicted murderer, escaped the United States two years back and, with nothing but smarts and bravado, took over an island in the West Indies. But now, Smithers informs Jones, the natives have tired of their emperor's rule. His servants have left, and a rebellion is being planned.
Jones decides to escape to the woods, where he's buried sustenance in preparation for such an upheaval. "The Emperor Jones," at this point, turns into a monologue -- it's just the emperor, his demons and, yes, once again the pulse of Weber's drum. Now the rhythm is reminiscent of a heartbeat, audible but regular at first as the heretofore arrogant Jones has trouble finding his stash. It's only the first misfortune of a very bad night to come, however, and as Jones's fear increases, so does the nerve-wracking tempo.
In keeping with American Century Theater's mission, "The Emperor Jones" is one of O'Neill's less frequently staged works. (Its portrayal of a despotic, patois-speaking black man has been criticized as racist.) With most audience members, therefore, presumably unfamiliar with the character, the script's brevity -- this production runs a little more than an hour -- is the play's most obvious downfall. Jones's short conversation with Smithers is the only background provided on the title character; you'll likely not feel as if you have a handle on who this person is before he's then thrown into adversity, with an abrupt resolution not far behind.
What is there, however, is pretty mesmerizing stuff. The audience forms a circle around Thomas B. Kennedy's spare set of tropical plants, rocks and dark-green overhangs, all dimly lit by AnnMarie Castrigno to evoke dusk as filtered through a forest. The small space seems even more claustrophobic when dominated by the towering Howard (familiar from his recurring role on HBO's "The Wire"), who is fascinating as a man whose vulnerability steadily erodes his arrogance until he's debilitated.
Most thrilling, however, is the production's representation of Jones's delirium. He's haunted by the people he's killed, who appear silently, moving in slow motion at the set's periphery. He imagines himself being sold at auction, which again is silent except for two well-dressed women eerily giggling under a parasol. And those sitting near one of several aisles to the stage may get a fright when, amid the darkness, they glimpse the formless fears suddenly crawling out to torment the emperor: These ghost figures, embodied by hunched-over actors covered in tattered black sheets and a few tiny red blinking lights, are easily the creepiest contribution to Jones's building nightmare. In contrast, the drumming doesn't seem so unsettling after all.
The Emperor Jones, by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Ed Bishop. Sound, Keith Bell; costumes, Rip Claassen, props, Suzanne Maloney. Approximately 1 hour 10 minutes. Through July 23 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.