Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play “Jerusalem” is currently running at FPCT. It is an ambitious production by this small, but mighty, local theater. Kudos go to the director, Ann Turiano, and the cast and crew for tackling the challenge.
The title of the play is a taken from a poem by William Blake and adapted into a familiar British hymn by Hubert Parry. Though receiving mostly positive reviews throughout the play’s history, it has issues (too long for one), especially in light of recent societal shifts. It was written to showcase the talents of British actor, Mark Rylance, who won an Olivier and Tony for his performance. Some have given the central character, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, almost Christ-like, Arthurian attributes, but comparisons to Falstaff suit him best. You could applaud his full-on lust for life and independence except he is not so noble and his careless actions have consequences.
“…Rogers makes the viewing worthwhile.”
After almost 30 years of squatting in a forest on the outskirts of an English village, it is time for this aging Pied Piper to pay the price. Council officials, Ms. Fawcett (Heather Johnston who also pulls double duty as the stage manager) and Mr. Parsons (Justin Johnson), come to give Johnny his final notice that he will be evicted the next day – by force if necessary. It is also St. George’s Day in Flintock, Whilshire County. Its citizens are welcoming the arrival of spring with their annual county fair, full of carnival games and a tacky parade that can be heard periodically in the background, thanks to sound designer, Devyn Deguzman.
It would be one thing if Johnny actively fought against a cause, but he is a complete hedonist. His encampment (a brilliant set design by Chris Flint for such a small stage) looks like a dump. A large trailer is surrounded by miscellaneous (though some useful) junk – an old couch, assorted chairs and table from a large cable spool, a toilet filled with empty beer bottles, an old phonograph with a stack of albums, a TV Johnny smashed while drunk, a small refrigerator, a grill and trash littering almost every surface. Booze and drugs are everywhere.
Johnny is charismatic but very flawed and there is no better actor to take on the demanding role than the equally charismatic Ian Blackwell Rogers. The character has a talent for spinning mesmerizing tales of English giants, dragons and even his own birth. But the reality is he is a self-absorbed, over-grown child and a lousy father – and basically a drug dealer. At one time, Johnny was a British version of Evel Kneivel, jumping over buses and shattering bones in his body. In one instance, he was pronounced dead (his revival may be another tall tale). He provides a hangout for his current crop of under-aged teens as well as friends who also never grew up.
Ginger (David Shoemaker) is his needy buddy and contemporary, an out-of-work stoner who aspires to be a DJ. Professor (Sean Coe) is an older adult, who lives in his own world, roaming the forest and quoting poetry. At one point, they slip him an LSD mickey. While the results may be comic to some, it is at the expense of a gentle man. Lee (Nate Krimmel), perhaps the most innocent, has a one-way ticket to Australia while Davey (Terrance Fleming) works at a slaughterhouse and is going nowhere, literally and figuratively.
The young female characters, Tanya (Dylan McKenzi) and Pea (Kelly Hutchinson) are as not as fully-realized, as are all the women – which is another issue. Johnny’s ex-girlfriend, Dawn (Carolyn Kich) shows up briefly with his son, disappointing the boy as he has probably done countless times before. Despite Dawn’s maturity, there is still some of that old black magic between her and Johnny.
The one person from the village who is a friend to Johnny is Welsey (a wonderful Michael Salconi), the only pub owner in town who hasn’t banned him. He feels stuck in an unhappy marriage and talked into dancing in a silly costume at the fair. He visits Johnny to do drugs and reminisce about the old days and all the women he loved.
Troy (David Forrer in a brief but powerful performance), who hung out with Johnny back in the day, is simply a bully. He is the stepfather of the missing 15-year old Phaedra (Molly Cohen) who appears to the audience here and there like a lost fairy with her angel wings. While Johnny implies that Troy is sexually abusive towards her, when she finally makes a full appearance, her interaction with Johnny muddies the waters. Troy returns with his brothers, inflicting a brutal act of cruelty on Johnny. Many things are left unanswered but he makes perhaps his last stand, calling on his mythical giants.
The script is littered with profanity and puerile sexual references. Even for the most dedicated Anglophile and despite a glossary provided in the lobby, the slang is at times difficult to follow and accents ebb and flow. Whether or not this is your cup of tea, Rogers makes the viewing worthwhile.
Running Time: Three hours and 15 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions.
Advisory: Contains adult language and content, sexual situations, sudden loud noises, and herbal cigarettes.
“Jerusalem” runs through February 3, 2019, at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore MD 21231. For tickets, call 410-276-7837 or go online.