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The Tony-nominated actor dazzles me every single time
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I'm ashamed to say that I was late to the John Douglas Thompson fan club -- not that he has an actual fan club, though he should and I just may start it! Somehow I missed this British-American actor's breakthrough performances, when he played the demanding title roles in Theatre for a New Audience's Othello (which won him an Obie) and Irish Repertory Theatre's The Emperor Jones just months apart in 2009. I was finally introduced to his talents during his next double whammy in the 2014-2015 season, when he blew my mind in Theatre for a New Audience's mounting of Tamburlaine, Parts I and II and a revival of The Iceman Cometh at BAM. Although I went in to those shows ignorant of Thompson's prodigious gifts, I came out thoroughly educated -- perhaps even indoctrinated. I haven't gotten a JDT tattoo just yet, but if there were a commemorative pin with his profile in silhouette, I'd proudly wear it to his premieres.
So what makes his performances so special? Is it too much to say it's because it's a guaranteed multi-sensory experience? His is a voice of warmth, depth, and surprising range. To what might I compare it… a bassoon? A trombone? The first sounds too snooty; the latter, a bit absurd, although the tone seems right. His instrument is capable of uncommon music. He can be loud yet he never trumpets the text; he can be soft yet he's hardly piano. This may be why he's enjoyed so much success with the classics, his ability to elucidate antiquated language.
That was definitely the case with Tamburlaine in which his towering performance as a powerful military man rescued Christopher Marlowe's oft-overlooked 16th-century masterpiece from the dusty archives of academia, transforming it into an action-packed crowd-pleaser due to Thompson's bravura delivery of its many monologues. Although it was an intensely violent staging (the crew frequently mopped fake blood from the floor), Thompson's sonorous voice is what caused chills to run down my spine. There aren't many contemporary performers who can hold forth with that kind of old-school grandeur.
His work in The Iceman Cometh was remarkably different. This time around he was a supporting player, one of a dozen drunks nursing sad little pipe dreams in the back of Eugene O'Neill's rum-soaked dive Harry Hope's Saloon. For much of the show, his character, Joe Mott, was part of the scenery, but when he eventually took center stage for a short outburst about "white man's bad luck" and racism in Act III, Thompson invested his speech with a rage and despair of Beckett-like proportions. It was, for me, the play's most harrowing moment. In an epic production starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy that ran nearly five hours with three intermissions, those few minutes are what stick in my memory.
There's no way to capture that kind of intensity on video and yet even so, I set out to see his performances that I had missed by viewing recordings of the aforementioned Emperor Jones and his solo turn in Satchmo at the Waldorf at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. And since then I've attended all of his shows in previews, including Theatre for a New Audience's double bill of Ibsen's A Doll's House and Strindberg's The Father last summer, and the recent Broadway mounting of August Wilson's Jitney. In the latter, Thompson played Becker, the proprietor of a local car service in a downtrodden 1970s Pittsburgh, who's paternal toward his dysfunctional staff yet ice cold to his estranged ex-con son, Booster (played by Brandon J. Dirden). Their heartrending confrontation, an almost biblical reckoning, closed out Act I, and certainly helped earn Thompson his first Tony Award nomination. It's almost ironic that he should get this accolade for a relatively modern role when he's best known for doing classics. Then again, what is Wilson but a contemporary classic?
And speaking of the classics, Thompson is currently appearing as Cassius in Julius Caesar for the Public's Shakespeare in the Park. Often, Cassius is one of those humdrum roles, a Benvolio type who delivers a fair share of exposition, moving the action along but not necessarily leading it. In lesser hands it's boring as hell. But Thompson is an actor who knows how to work a monologue, especially one crafted in verse. Personally, I was captivated as his character recounted the tale of rescuing Caesar in a river, or when he wooed his slave to assist him in a suicide. He's not forcing the poetry into naturalistic speech; he's in tune with the iambic pentameter and making it sing. It makes me wish there were a cast recording for sale at the Delacorte Theater's concession stand. When a voice like Thompson's is intoning the Bard, it rocks as hard as any musical in town.
Drew Pisarra's theatre experiences range from ventriloquist (Singularly Grotesque) to librettist (The World Is Round), choreographer (Ladies' Voices) to master of ceremonies (White Wines). Follow him on Twitter at @mistermysterio. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson in Julius Caesar. Photos by Joan Marcus.