Thoreau, not in jail

Last night, Peter Sterne, Bwog’s resident expert on theatrical representations of philosophical imprisonment, visited the Glicker-Milstein blackbox theatre for the the Columbia University Players production of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.

The CU Players production of “The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail” (written by Edward Lee and Jerome Lawrence, directed by Cody Haefner, CC ’12, and produced by Hannah Kloepfer, CC ’13) is done in the round, with audience members on all sides, rather than on a traditional stage, as the play is usually performed. In addition, the stage is very minimalist, with only a long box and chair on a small wheeled stage in the middle of it. The music, light piano with a splash of flute and bells, is composed by Ben Weiner, CC ’11, and played by Yonatan Gebeyehu, CC ’11.

The play began not with Thoreau in a jail as one would expect from the title, but with a series of quick scenes that served as Thoreau’s memories. They comprised the bulk of the play, with the actual night that Thoreau spent in jail serving mainly as a framing narrative. These scenes quickly established Thoreau, played by Brian LaPerche, CC ’12, as a socially awkward but philosopical and passionate soul. LaPerche adopts a physical stiffness and halting speech patterns that reveal Thoreau’s internal struggle to communicate his enthusiasm for transcendentalist ideas.

His mother, played with a maternal sweetness by Madalena Provo, BC ’12, and his romantic interest, Ellen Sewell, played by Kate Eberstadt, CC ’13,  love him in spite of his disdain for the world. However, his brother John, played by Eleanor Bray, BC ’14, seems to be the only person who truly understands him, though his poor and uneducated cellmate Bailey, played with a raw but endearing sincerity by Olivia Levine, BC ’14, has immense respect for him. In fact, the relationship between Thoreau and Bailey almost seems exploitative. Bailey asks Thoreau to try to understand the world, and Thoreau replies with intellectual and philosophical musings that attack the world’s institutions rather than answer Bailey’s questions.

Ellen, on the other hand, attempts to understand Thoreau’s ideas, though, as Ebestadt’s performance makes clear, she cannot quite fully buy into his philosophy. One of the most meaningful moments in the play occurs when Thoreau takes her for a romantic rowboat ride. The whimsical and romantic nature of the ride is underscored by innovative set design. The wheeled stage actually moves across the theatre as Thoreau “rows” it. This was but one feature of the play’s impressive art direction by Kat Chan, SEAS ’12 (with assistance from Natalie Robehmed, CC ’13, and Cindy Do, CC ’14). The romance continues as Thoreau tries to show Ellen the depth of his transcendentalist philosophy, but it is cut short as he aggressively challenges her worldview and finally absend-mindedly stands in the boat. Eberstadt channels a sense of horrified vulnerability as Ellen, now fully in Thoreau’s power, asks him to “be a gentleman” and row her back to shore.  Thoreau obliges her, requesting only that she spend time with his brother John who also loves her. John is not so lucky, though, as Ellen rejects his proposal, which breaks his spirit and sends Bray into fits of truly disturbing laughter.

Another poignant moment, this time casting Thoreau in the role of victim, occurs when he is forced by Deacon Ball, the strictly traditional head of the Concord school system played with a delicious cruelty by Emily Wallen, BC ’11 (who also plays the less significant but far more hilarious “random drunk passerby”), to flog his students for laughing. LaPerche slowly takes off his belt, calls his students to come forward individually, and proceeds to flog them over a chair. Thoreau whips only air, which in the hands of a lesser actor and director could come across as farcical, but the anguish on his face and the shocked reactions of the audience attest to the scene’s power.

The most signifiant relationship in the play, that of Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, played by Reni Calister, BC ’11, serves as a commentary on the importance of standing up for what you believe in. Thoreau first hears Emerson at Harvard, and later ends up working for him by taking care of Emerson’s son, Edward, while Emerson is away on speaking tours. Edward is hilariously played by Yonatan Gebeyehu, CC ’11, with relentless enthusiasm and immaturity. Emerson, perhaps owing to his fame, is progressive but not revolutionary, a quality Calister captures in her gentlemanly speech patterns and authoritative presence. Thoreau, who only occasionally goes into town and refuses to pay taxes to show his opposition to the current war in Mexico, accuses Emerson of not practicing what he preaches for paying taxes that support the war and refusing to speak out against it. This manifests itself in a very well-choreographed dream sequence that Thoreau has while in jail, where marching and fighting soldiers take orders from Emerson, who announces he must carefully consider all options before making a decision.


Thoreau is not blameless, though. As Emerson points out,  it’s easy to try to escape society by running into the woods, but that does not actually help others in society. In the end, Thoreau realizes this and, once freed from jail, he resolves to experience the full range of life’s possibilities.

Jailbird from Wikimedia Commons