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Theatre Review (LA): Cages by Leonard Manzella at the Matrix Theatre

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On the recent night I saw the riveting play Cages, three alternates were in the cast, but the show was still powerful and compelling. That just goes to prove the depth of talent in LA theatre.

Cages is a prison drama by Leonard Manzella, directed by one of LA’s best, Jon Lawrence Rivera. The plot is based on a true story exposing the treatment of mental patients in the California prison system. It is also a tale of power struggles, freedom, and human commonality. Manzella maintains, ”Cages is a play about culture struggling to acknowledge its own shadow while desperately searching for a moral compass.” The story is related to One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but without the resolution.

We are introduced to the alcoholic psychologist Dr. Thomas Morri (a potent John Nielsen) who has been transferred to a different prison following the suicide of an inmate. He is met with resistance from officials and inmates alike. His job is to rehabilitate these prisoners, but we soon realize this may be an impossible task. We also meet a sadistic prison guard, Officer Caine (Matt Kirkwood), who makes others’ lives hell.

Dr. Morri eventually zeros in on a hostile inmate, Henderson (a brilliant Jemal McNeil), who suffers from multiple personality disorder. The other patients run the gamut of disorders but are never fully developed. The inmates are introduced to us in cages but as a device, director Rivera has them wander in and out of these cages so that we may focus on each individually. This device results in a loss of the tension that comes from these men being caged.

A super cast of actors makes up for what the play lacks in dramaturgy. The cast I saw included Wiley B. Oscar, Sasha Higgins, Leslie A Jones, Andrew James Villarreal, and Richard Lee Warren. Cages is playing at the Matrix Theatre through July 15.

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