“Cages” Not Just Another Prison Play

Daniel V. Graulau Photo: Laetitia Pardo

Cages runs til July 15th at the Matrix Theatre

by Dale Reynolds, Senior Arts Critic

Prison plays tend to fall into one major category:  bad guys in prison for dastardly acts treated badly by men in uniform who might just belong in there with the BG’s.  And there’s usually violence and maybe shower scenes or a rape scene, etc.  So when a newer model comes along, you sit up and pay attention.

Leonard Manzella, a former actor and psychodramatist for California and Vatican prisons, has written his first play, Cages, set, guess-where?—in a prison.  Of course, it’s what he knows.  Previously produced earlier this year at the small Stella Adler Theatre, in Hollywood,  they found an open spot at Joe Stern’s fine little playhouse, The Matrix on Melrose Avenue and are settled in for a few more weeks.

A cast of eight, with five of the actors playing prisoners, a lone female playing a psychiatrist, and the balance guards or another psychologist.  Well-directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, Manzella’s drama feels right as an indictment of both the prison system as such and a stronger condemnation of society for not willingly going along with the idea of rehabilitation being connected to some of the mental illnesses that land so many in prison (due usually to violent acts) instead of into therapy wards.

The latter prejudice is illustrated in the character of Officer Caine (a wondrously twisted Matt Kirkwood), a guard who has been in charge of far too many of the murderous men under his care.  He is a veteran officer who is content with using violence (or the threat of it) as a method of controlling these disturbed men, and who is put into direct conflict with a recovering alcoholic psychologist. Dr. Thomas Morri (John Nielsen in a beautifully-controlled performance) who wants to reach them before they do more violence to themselves or to others.  The female staffer, Sally (Sasha Higgins) who is terrified of one of the sexual predators under her care, Fargo (Leslie A. Jones), as well as worried over her career, makes peace with her intolerable situation at the expense of the prisoners and her fellow doctors.   The most striking character is that of Henderson (Jemal McNeil), the multiple-personality prisoner who is the most touching in his pain.

The title comes from the literal cages that these men are stuck in group therapy inside an administrative segregated unit in the prison.  As described, they are the size of a phone booth, bolted to a cold cement floor.  The mentally ill prisoners are shackled within and they stare out at the authorities through tightly-meshed metal wire.  The images on stage are not as revolting as the description, but one may be glad they are between you the audience and the terrific actors who inhabit these men and their internal as well as external cages.

While the play itself could use another swipe (it doesn’t flow well enough between set acting pieces), it’s still strong, powerful and very disturbing.  Director Rivera makes the most of Robert Selander’s expressionistic set, under Adam Blumenthal’s harsh lighting design, and the prison-jumper costumes of Mylette Nora.

America hasn’t yet woken up to the disgusting waste of money and human potential in our prison system, which seems very much designed to make a few a lot of money, amid the rancorous need of a society that demands revenge more than rehabilitation.  This play, merely one of dozens over the years, continues to battle with this level of ignorance, spelling out the human misery that perpetuates itself within the walls.

The entire cast is splendidly strong, with Nielsen, Steve Apostolina, Kirkwood, Leslie A. Jones, Wiley B. OscarDaniel V. Graulau, and McNeil  make the most of their characters.  Only Higgins, with a voice that grated in its “girly” quality, was most out-of-charm, although the rest of her performance was up to the standards of the others.

Cages plays runs til July 15th at the Matrix Theatre, June 7–July 15, 2012; Thurs. Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.

Presented by LDG Productions
The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046
Tickets: (800) 838-3006 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/245933
Running time: 2 hrs