“Jerusalem” is a behemoth of a play, clocking in at more than three hours long, with a 14-person cast, and symbolically tackling the entire history and society of Britain through a script chock full of inferred mythological, literary and historical references that would delight any former English lit major.
The modern-day drama by contemporary playwright darling Jez Butterworth received rave reviews for its West End and Broadway productions a few years ago. And Fells Point Corner Theatre’s ambitious production, energetically directed by Ann Turiano, is deserving of similar praise for several aspects of its presentation, including a riveting performance by Ian Blackwell Rogers as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a gorgeously squalid set by Christopher Flint and the sheer stamina of its ensemble cast.
“Jerusalem” opens with a young woman in a fairy costume singing the popular British hymn for which the play is named, eerily setting the stage for audiences to read between and beyond the lines: “And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountains green/ And was the holy Lamb of God, on England’s pleasant pastures seen!”
The play takes place in the small fictional town of Flintock on St. George’s Day, a medieval tradition of welcoming spring that’s celebrated annually with a country fair and parade. It’s a town happening with everyone participating in some way, whether it’s coordinating the donkey drop, riding on the “Men in Black II” float or getting wasted in the woods, as does middle-aged drug dealer Rooster and his flock of bored teens and aging burnouts.
Rooster is a sort of Falstaff in his hedonism, and like Pied Piper or Fagin, a leader of youths. He’s legendary and tragic, his best days behind him and only his seemingly endless supply of pills, coke and booze tethering him to the world beyond his mobile home that’s been illegally parked in the forest for decades. He’s the candy man for the town’s teens and deadbeats, who humor his larger-than-life stories (he’s personally acquainted with Druidic giants; he was born with a bullet between his teeth, etc.). The teens are mostly dismissive, and the adults are wistful for the glory days–of the county fair, and of their youth, when Rooster would thrill crowds with his daredevil stunts, like soaring over buses on his motorcycle, even being pronounced dead once.
Rogers skillfully embodies Rooster’s history of broken bones and decades of hard partying, stiffly strutting across a set strewn with empty Boddington’s beer cans, brightly colored bras and a TV smashed during the previous night’s blackout. Rooster starts his day with a gutter run-off bucket bath and cocktail of milk, vodka and raw eggs. He doesn’t care about his health or the eviction papers he’s been served. He is dedicated to his outcast lifestyle, and will literally go down in flames before he gives in to the establishment.
Somewhere here there’s symbolism for Britain’s current state and its history and mythological giants like King Arthur’s court and St. George and the dragon, but this is a little lost in FPCT’s production.
However, the ensemble cast admirably gives their all to the many party/buzzed scenes, staged by Turiano almost like dances, sometimes even including coordinated drumming. Standouts are Nate Krimmel as the well-meaning, naive teen Lee, and Sean Coe, who applies his considerable experience performing Shakespeare to the absent-minded burnout The Professor, delivering a haunting monologue midway through the play. Kelly Hutchison, Dylan McKenzi and Molly Cohen give appropriately youthful performances as their 15-year-old girl characters.
The revelry is sprinkled with meatier scenes featuring adults who bring Rooster back down to reality, including his baby mama (Carolyn Koch), an angry father of one of the teen girls (a commanding David Forrer) and the officers recounting the dozens of neighbors who have signed a petition to get Rooster out of town (a gleefully nerdy Justin Johnson and appropriately grounded Heather Johnston).
What is more tangible than some larger symbolism is the turmoil contained within Rooster’s existence; how he’s lived his life and his tragic current state. Rogers, an actor who’s a regular with Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, gives a compelling performance that commands attention through bombastic monologues and contemplative stares into the distance. Rooster could be a repulsive character, but Rogers gives him depth and sympathy. His brooding eyes are like a sorcerer’s, able to enchant and destroy–mostly himself.
“Jerusalem” runs through Feb. 3 at Fells Point Corner Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit fpct.org/shows/jerusalem.