After watching Johnny “Rooster” Byron and his drug-addicted disciples for three hours in Jerusalem, I cannot blame the residents of Wiltshire, England, for wanting him out of his trailer in the woods. Nor am I surprised that Rooster Byron was such a hit for London Theatergoers, who saw in this anti-hero the rough-around-the-edges Brittonian that is as synonymous to the British identity as Robin Hood and King Arthur.
Profiles Theater took the reins on the Midwest premier of this three-act odyssey that features a cast of 16. Perhaps the larger theater companies shied away because much of the praise for the London and Broadway productions focused on lead Mark Rylance, who won the Tony award for best actor after sweeping every British award in 2010. Fortunately, Profiles features Darrell W. Cox (a four-time Jeff award winner) as an ensemble member. I was enthralled by Cox’s performance as the soft-spoken hitman in Killer Joe (one of his Jeff awards) in 2012, and his performance as Rooster is just as exceptional.
Some key details about Rooster: he supports himself by selling drugs and by doing other odd jobs around town. He washes himself in an aluminum basin outside his trailer (if you sit in the front row, you will get wet!). His breakfast consists of soured milk mixed with alcohol mixed with a raw egg (yes—Cox did ingest that concoction on stage). His trailer is a club house for disenfranchised teens, who flock to Rooster for drugs, alcohol, and other forms of escapism.
The action of Jerusalem progresses over the course of a single day beginning with an attack when two constables visit Rooster’s trailer, taking pictures of the litter and broken electronics and stapling eviction notices to Rooster’s screen door when he refuses to emerge (special credit goes to Annie Pfohl for excelling in her supporting role as the lead constable—she epitomizes the uptight-Brit that clashes so completely with Rooster). Rooster chooses not to heed the warning to vacate within 24 hours; he has lived in that trailer out in the woods for 22 years and has overcome similar discontent.
Playwright Jez Butterworth consistently in interviews denies writing Rooster as an allegory for any particular legend. Rooster’s quest draws comparisons to a more generic British legacy. He is a King destined to be betrayed by those that once worshiped him but now have matured past his exploits. He is a Magician who conjures vast knowledge but who forgets a critical fact at the most inopportune moment. He is a Prophet that enthralls his pupils with stories of his conception off the head of a bullet. He is the Guardian hiding a teen Princess (of the St. George’s Day fair) from the dragon that is her abusive step-father. He is a Father that makes little effort to connect to his six-year-old son Marky but is nonetheless wounded when Marky refuses to hug him.
Most importantly, Rooster is the Doomed that has lost his war on all fronts and is surrounded by bulldozers ready to erase his existence in the name of decency. However, Rooster is not one to surrender. Butterworth’s script grows increasingly more suspenseful as the 9am eviction deadline draws nearer and Rooster becomes increasingly isolated. Rooster may not have the power to stand up to the 8,000 residents of Wiltshire, but he does have the perseverance to ensure that his legacy will be remembered.
NOTE: In a number of odd ways, Jerusalem is a perfect juxtaposition for another theatrical masterpiece centered on a changing Britain. In fall 2000, Maggie Smith played another mobile-home dweller in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. Mary (Smith’s character) was must more refined than Rooster and the supporting characters in Bennett’s play were a much more upper-crust sort, but both protagonists represent British outsiders struggling to co-exist with their changing surroundings.