Theater Review

Laugh out loud 'Jerusalem'

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Imagine attending a rave at Stonehenge along with Robin Hood, Lord Byron’s bastard son, William Blake and Joe Strummer from The Clash. That’s the experience, and experience is quite the right word, of seeing “Jerusalem”, the current and potent production by The Wilbury Theatre Group, which happily pulls no punches in presenting this smashing show. Jez Butterworth’s wonderful play is sprawling, raucous and, like it’s hero Rooster Byron, hard to pin down; part ‘alcoholic bucolic frolic’ and part vision quest into the untamed heart of British civilization.

The action takes place on Saint George’s Day, in ‘Rooster’s Wood’, an unruly patch of forest threatened by the encroaching construction of a housing estate development. Here Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, a local motorcycle daredevil legend who has fallen considerably from grace, squats in his squalid trailer surrounded by a gang that would do a Falstaff proud, misfits, hangers-on and the current crop of local teens who come to soak up the booze and drugs and practice typical dissolution. On the day of an annual local fair, Johnny defiantly awaits eviction from the authorities.

The forest of Arden it ain’t (or is it?) but this setting is not without a certain wild charm. And, unlikely as it may seem, ‘Rooster’s Wood’ is an apt metaphor in a meadow for the whole of British society, past and present as well as a microcosm containing the eternal conflict between the controlling forces of civilization and the savage sylvan sensuality of our own natural state; the latter being an ideal, ironically, so celebrated by so-called civilized British poets.

Playwright Butterworth well reminds too just how wild and wooly the heart of a poet can be. His language here amidst this sometimes sordid scene is evocative and lyrical, both lush (appropriately) and rough and though this epic adventure, filled with song, story and much mayhem clocks in at around three hours, trust me, you’ll never be bored.

One reason for that is how the playwright expertly conveys the hilarity of an absurdly awful situation; this show is often laugh out loud funny, the other is the pointed direction of Wilbury artistic director Josh Short. He keeps the action of this gloriously sprawling play clipped, exact and most importantly, urgent.
This long, strange trip is peopled too by an indelible motley cast of characters you couldn’t forget even if you wanted to. Chief among these is Johnny the Rooster and David Tessier is positively magnetic and mesmerizing in the role. As he proved when he played “Mack the Knife” in Wilbury’s fine “Three Penny Opera”, he’s quite debonair in his deviltry, but there’s something else at play here as well. What marks this Rooster is that there’s no trace of braggart to his swagger, he simply is a force of nature and he knows it too; he’s every inch a Romany King. He’s his own mythical figure here and nonchalantly allows others to make his legend for him. Mr. Tessier’s performance is informed and imbued by his is own innate awareness that he is larger than life, and, like the Giant he talks of meeting he “don’t need to make no song and dance about it.” You can’t take your eyes off him onstage and I don’t know if any human actor can actually harness and ride the sheer and wild life-force of nature, but David Tessier comes damn near close. And he manages to make this dissolute character absolutely humane, a hero with a thousand faces, the essential human we can’t help rooting for. Bravo!

Legendary characters are often surrounded by lesser mortals, that’s not the case here though as Director Short has filled this huge cast with a great group of actors, all of whom, in their various roles onstage, always serve to make a play better. As a dotty and addlepated Professor, John Michael Richardson is very funny but also absolutely heartfelt and quite moving. Shannon Hartman, in the small but crucial role of Phaedra, positively fills the stage and stirs the soul with her presence.

Jeff Hodge strikes perfect notes as the hang-dog hanger on and eternal loser Ginger, though I must confess I couldn’t always comprehend his handling of modern English slang, which is a patois one must sit back and adjust one’s ears to. But he was strong and fine in the role.

As Rooster’s former ‘bird’, Dawn, Melissa Penick is forthright and strident, proving to be the one equal opposing force here to the redoubtable Rooster. I liked much David Pizelli as Wesley, the weary pathos he conveyed was spot-on as a portrayed a man whose every waking second is a constant humiliation.

Andrew Iacovelli and Jonathan Fisher, two fine actors, help make this motley crew complete as Lee and Davey. Likewise Valerie Westgate and Andrea Reid are perfect tarnished angels as Pea and Tanya. As a pair of village authorities Rae Mancini and Roger Lemelin make for an officious and droll pair.

Hats off to the entire ensemble for creating a great unified force in this grand and concentrated little epic, an effort well served by Monica Shinn’s magnificent set, a curtain consisting of strands of tinsel reveals the hidden bucolic squalor and her green and tangled bunches of camouflaged tarp perfectly surround us in this dark and forbidding wood.

In Rooster’s “green and pleasant land” (the play’s title comes from William Blake’s lyrics for the popular British hymn) there is, alas, no place anymore for a giant among men to stand out on the scene. And if nature itself is inherently wild and unreasonable, civilization too has lost its way.

Society is dull hegemony and hypocrisy, right down to BBC blandness and the annual fair that ain’t what it used to be. There is a tipping point between the intuitive and the empirical, between the savage and the civilized and in the end a man caught in the middle of all that can do nothing but defiantly scream.
As you may have gleaned, “Jerusalem” is maybe not everyone’s cuppa, but it is a wild and glorious epic trip that you’ll never forget. This play is not only an example of the sort of adventurous theatre that The Wilbury Group so excels at but a thrilling and moving reminder of the power that theatre can possess, a communal experience that shakes our soul even as it instructs and provide catharsis, a tradition started at campfires not unlike the one in ‘Rooster’s Wood” and one here that encompasses the best of both human halves, both our wild and tamed influences. This is also the Rhode Island premiere of a celebrated and Tony Award nominated play that will, I predict, still be performed much and discussed one hundred years hence. So see this play. Beat your drum. Come, you giants!

“Jerusalem” at The Wilbury Theatre Group, 193 Broad Street, Providence, now through June 6. Visit thewilburygroup.org for details.

Wilbury Theatre

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.