Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Bloodless Jungle examines the underbelly of politics at Ensemble

Many people know Peter Lawson Jones as an attorney, business consultant and former Cuyahoga County Commissioner.  Some even know that he is a member of SAG-AFTRA and Actor’s Equity and has appeared in films and network television as well as numerous Northeast Ohio and Off-Broadway plays.  What few probably know is that he is a published playwright.  His newest work, The Bloodless Jungle is now in its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre.

It is entirely logical in this season of politics and the background of the author that the play centers on the campaign of a young black idealistic man who first successfully runs for the State Senate and then is a candidate for the House of Representatives.

Having been actively involved in four successful campaigns by a candidate and then incumbent for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as a candidate for County Commissioner, plus having worked at the White House for a year-and-a-half, I can attest to the shenanigans of campaigning and the role of the media in setting the tone of a campaign through the spreading of innuendoes, planting stories that incite the public to increase circulation of newspapers and viewership of television programs.  I can attest to the fact that Lawson Jones knows his subject matter. 

What appears in the play, at least the political process and the stress on the candidates and their families, is a fair representation of what goes on.

The story centers on Ethan St. John, a good-looking, poised, articulate young black man.  And though it is a positive trait in a fine human being, as St. John learns, his kindness and compassion are a vulnerability in politics. 

For some, the sensitivity to truth and having loyalty to friends and family can work.  This was true for the late Don Pease, the congressman for the then Ohio 13th district, who I assisted in his campaigns.  Seemingly, the electorate of his district agreed, as he never lost an election.  He was one of the lucky ones who held to his high principles and was a winner.  But it doesn’t work for many.  They either become jaded, can’t deflect the strain on themselves and their family,  or need to enter the political bloody jungle.

We watch as St. John, with the aid of Cyrus Templeton, his white boyhood co-football playing friend, fellow lawyer, and campaign manager, fight the media, try to counter the rumors, and spar with a long term incumbent congresswoman.  St. John confronts attempts to undermine his creditability by besmirching him because he aided a long time buddy (J. J. Jones) who went to jail for supposedly raping a young lady, paid his time, and is again falsely accused of another rape.

St. John’s campaign is supervised by H. Henderson Hill, a national political operative, who authored the best selling book, “Winning Ugly,” about how to run a campaign that wins at all costs.  He believes that “Politics is life in the jungle.”  He advises St. John that if he doesn’t withdraw his backing of J. J. he is bound to lose the election.   What will St. John do?

The campaign is made even more complicated since Templeton is having an affair with Laura Larkin, the political reporter of the largest local newspaper.

The tale itself is interesting.  Unfortunately, as often happens in plays in process, and this is a play that needs work, it is too long (almost 3 hours with an intermission), needs cutting and tightening up.  There are several scenes which could be shortened, some even eliminated.

Terrence Spivey’s directing is generally efficient, but some of the pacing is too languid, and several actors fail to project, making their lines impossible to hear, even in the small Ensemble Playground. 

Robert Hunter presents a realistic Ethan, nicely texturing the role.  Eva Rodriguez, as Ethan’s wife, is proficient, especially in a scene where she makes a major revelation.  Dean Coutris is physically correct and creates a well developed WASP persona.  Greg White stays pretty much on the surface.  He needs to be more ruthless to help develop a clear cut-throat, overpowering political hack. 

LaShawn Little is sincere as J. J. but is often impossible to hear, especially in the vital prison scene.   Anthony Lanier (Malik) and Santino Montanez (Tio) add some much needed comic relief.  Miranda Scholl could be more authentic in her characterization, being Laura, not acting Laura.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Bloodless Jungle presents an interesting political concept.  The surprise ending adds a nice touch of realism, saving the show from being a television soap opera.  This is a script in process which needs shortening and the addition of more humor and drama.  Interested in the political process and the behind the scenes machinations?  If so, you might enjoy this production.

The Bloodless Jungle runs Thursdays through Saturdays @ 8 and Sundays @ 2 through October 2, 2016 at the Playground performing space in Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Prevention Education, Outreach and Community Partnership department is hosting a FREE production of Bloodless Jungle on Sunday, September 25, 2016, at Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights. The production and talkback will focus on decision making and consent for high school youth. To register youth for this free event go to:   Be aware that this production contains adult language and subject matter and is not appropriate for children.