Playwright Jez Butterworth is on record asserting he didn't intentionally weave a Norton's Anthology worth of literary allusions in the sprawling text of his acclaimed drama Jerusalem. But if you're paying even scant attention to the nearly three-hour production at Profiles Theatre, it gets hard to believe the dozens – perhaps hundreds – of references are mere coincidence.
The play takes its title from a William Blake poem. In both name and behavior, the leading character – Johnny Rooster Byron – echoes Lord Byron, the famously debauched genius poet of England's Romantic era. The plot unfolds in the woodland home of a "troll" (Rooster's description of himself) on St. George's Day, England's annual celebration of the dragon-slaying saint.
Butterworth's plot is a simple, but filled with a complicated skein of 17 characters and countless layers of subtext. The story takes place as the good citizens of Flintock prepare to celebrate St. George with an annual fair featuring the likes of traveling carnival rides, "donkey drop" bingo, and townsfolk dressed up in ridiculous costumes. But there's a shadow over the festivities: Phaedra, the 15-year-old Queen of the May set to preside over the fair, is missing. Her father believes Rooster Byron is involved. The suspicion is well-founded: Rooster is both Satyr and Pied Piper, and his Baba Yaga-like hut in the woods is a magnet for underage girls, lost boys, and the fire-and-pitchfork wrath of the respectable local populace. He spends his nights drinking, drugging, and presiding over Dionysian frenzies where teenage nymphs wind up passed out under the leaves, their clothes torn and slicked with animal dung.
While Rooster hypnotizes his acolytes with tales of his magical lineage, his encounters with giants and his otherworldly powers, the grownups of Flintock want him evicted and his rusting trailer home bulldozed. As the eviction proceedings against Byron commence, Butterworth highlights the conflict between "The Estate" and individualism. As heroes go, Rooster is tough to root for – especially for anyone who has had to contend with a filthy, noisy, dangerously unstable, and/or property value-lowering neighbor. Factor in all those young girls Rooster shelters, and you've got a deeply problematic hero. Directed by Joe Jahraus, Jerusalem succeeds as a fantastic showcase for the formidable talents of leading man Darrell Cox, who digs into the role of Rooster Byron like a ravenous dog with a bone. Beyond that, Jerusalem is sometimes overwhelming and sometimes tedious experience. But on the whole, Profiles makes it compelling.
At the core of Jerusalem are two mysteries. First, where is Phaedra? Second, is Byron a supernatural born of a line of all-powerful dragons and giants, or is he merely a mentally ill menace in need of treatment?
Cox's raw, spooky Rooster shows that both personas are possible. One moment you pity Byron, the next you want him arrested, the next you're in awe of his unsettling powers. When you learn of Rooster's extraordinary past, as a dirt bike daredevil whose feats made Evel Knievel look pedestrian, the possibility that Rooster Byron isn't entirely mortal takes on an eerie probability.
But Cox's powerful performance can't carry Jerusalem alone. This is a drama in need of editing, particularly in the final 30 minutes, which slogs through what feels like three separate endings before we get to the final blackout. There's so much going in Butterworth's dialogue that the crucial conflict surrounding Rooster and those who would slay him loses its immediacy. If you feel you need a companion program of footnotes and annotations before the first act is out, you're not alone. Plays thick with symbolism and allegory can be rich, wondrous experiences. But when you need an advanced-level lit seminar to fully appreciate and understand what's unfurling onstage, the play's power diminishes significantly.
That said, Jahraus gets uniformly fine performances from his 17-member ensemble. As a pair of county bureaucrats charged with serving Rooster his eviction notice, Annie Pfohl and David Cady Jr. bookend Jerusalem with two memorably hilarious scenes. As aspiring DJ/unemployed plasterer Ginger, Jake Szczepaniak lights up the stage with brilliant comic timing and a sunny/snarky disposition befitting Rooster's oldest hanger-on. As Rooster's ex-wife Dawn, Erika Napoletano nails the anger, exasperation, and affection of a woman in love with an impossible man. And as Wesley, a pub owner stripped of all dignity by his Flintock Fair duties, Jeff Gamlin is both pathetic and heart-wrenching.
Thad Hallstein's set is a work of art, from the squishy, rotting leaves you have to muck through to get to your seat to the mural depicting St. George battling the dragon that arches above the stage. Rooster's abode is so realistic looking that you'll feel like you need a tetanus shot by the end of the opening scene. Costume designer AmAr*jck [sic] also does excellent work, especially in providing Rooster with the endless array of hats that boldly illustrate the mythic aspects of his identity.
In its final, percussive scene, Jerusalem taps into the hair-raising power of myth and magic. Rooster is a man who is out of options as the lights start dimming, but the possibility that the creators of Stonehenge just might be striding over the hills to his rescue is both thrilling and thought-provoking. If nothing else, you'll leave Jerusalem with a yen to revisit your English 101 texts of yore.
- Darrell W. Cox
- Jez Butterworth
- Profiles Theatre
- Joe Jahraus
- Jake Szczepaniak
- Eric Salas
- Scott Wolf
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