Sunday, August 21, 2011

Holy Hell Jerusalem: Mildly Bitter Goes Soft

Even though I hate everything, I really liked this play.  I wasn't a sobbing puddle of humanity by the end but I definitely had tears in my eyes and found it profoundly moving.

I saw Jerusalem several times this season including today's final show.  I find it is rare that I see a new play and walk out thinking, "Wow.  I'd like to read that."  But it was that kind of play.  Even after seeing it multiple times I was still discovering nuances and layers to it.  Seeing a top-notch cast perform it made it all the more remarkable. 

A short, wholly insufficient, description of the plot would be, Rooster Johnny Byron, a Romany man, is about to be driven out of his trailer where he hosts parties for teens, deals drugs, and makes trouble for the local estate.  On St. George's Day, his last day in possession of his piece of England, he continues to provide drugs and entertainment to his coterie of teen hangers on and cannot be persuaded to leave before the bull-dozers are scheduled to arrive.

It is very easy to focus on Mark Rylance's performance, as Rooster Johnny Byron alone.  He's a human-hurricane (as I have mentioned he's the greatest Hamlet I have ever seen).  It is not only an incredible physical performance where he shapes his physical being into a battered old daredevil's body, but a comedic and touching performance as well.  (The last physical performance where an actor magically transformed himself before my eyes was Billy Crudup in The Elephant Man--He was amazing.).  Rylance possesses this character in a way that I will probably have to wait 20 years before I could even accept someone else in the role.  In my mind, they are now inseparable. 

What could be easily missed along side Rylance's performance is the stunning supporting cast in this show. Mackenzie Crook, Max Baker and Alan David each bring their pain and sadness to the feet of Rooster.  Rooster is more than just pied piper; he's priest and confessor to each of these men.  Mackenzie Crook has great comic timing and brings a sweetness and sadness to this character who wants nothing more than respect and love from Rooster.  Alan David, as The Professor, is both whimsical and bereft. 

Why each character comes to Rooster's woods is unique and specific thanks to a talented cast and a great text. 

I saw John Gallagher Jr. perform the role of Lee Piper and today saw his understudy, Jay Sullivan.  Lee Piper is the young man in the crowd who has decided to leave England and move to Australia.  Rooster gives his respect and blessings to Lee.  Gallagher may have delivered the stoner-dude comedy sharper but Sullivan really conveyed the weight of loss from Lee choosing to leave.  The scene between Lee and his mate Davey (Danny Kirrane another standout in the cast) felt more poignant with Sullivan's reading of it.  Gallagher brought a layer of sensuality to the role which worked well in the flirtation with the girls in the gaggle. Sullivan seemed a bit more shell-shocked in the romance department, which played to a different comic effect.  It was really a pleasure to have seen both performances as the character morphed slightly to each actor's bidding and yet each performance was appropriate for the play. 

The women in the cast should not be overlooked.  Geraldine Hughes as Rooster's old girlfriend has a challenging role to convey her love this for man, her fear that he will be destroyed, her fear how this will effect her child, and her own demons.  Charlotte Mills and Molly Ranson (soon to be the new Carrie) are splendid as the teen girls who hang about, with Mills always offering herself up to Lee should he want a "freebie" before he goes away.  Aimee-Ffion Edwards is ethereal as Phaedra. She was flipping ethereal on the sidewalk outside the theater.  Can we please cast all these girls in a bunch more shows?  I really enjoyed their work.

What makes Jerusalem stand out for me is that it is by and large a riotous good time and yet that comedy leads to a serious and deeper discussion. 

The bigger themes here in Jerusalem are epic.  Many of the reviews focused on the fact that it was about ENGLAND (in big honking letters).  And it is on one level. But it can be so much more.  It is about myth, storytelling, revealing ourselves, being understood, being accepted, being seen.  It is about sheltering those who need it despite the consequences and about hurting those who we may love because we cannot do any different.  Being true to yourself and holding fast to your convictions, even if that means utter destruction.  I don't's probably about all of those things, maybe none of those things, and a whole lot more.  Like I said, I really want to read it.  I am sure it will a text to be studied for years to come.

I happen to be more of a straight play person and this play was right up my alley.  It was on some levels fuck-off depressing and at the same time genuinely uplifting and soaring.  It used the "c" word in the English context which is needed more in the US.  And it was lyrical and poetic and yet contemporary and relatable.  It is a joy to see and a joy to see when performed with a great cast. I look forward to revisiting it in 20 years.  Rylance can play the Professor then. 

As tonight was the final New York performance, Mark Rylance at the curtain call gave a speech.  He did so another night when I went.  It happened to be St. George's Day when I saw the play and as that figures into the plot he took some time at the curtain call to just give a beautiful speech about the meaning of the holiday to him and to the cast.  Off the cuff, it had me crying.  And if you have read any of this blog, I mean I'm not a sentimental person (go to War stupid Horse, I will not cry for you!)  Tonight he spoke about being part of wonderful unions, the skill and craft of understudies, the theater family they have created and the wonderful experience of being on the NY stage.  He wrapped up with a delicious statement which I will paraphrase poorly about the state we often find ourselves in: Having to stay, when you want to go places and having to go, when you want nothing more than to stay.

Standing in that theater, in that moment, I wanted it to last forever, but alas the moment had already passed, the play had ended.  Theater being ephemeral, I find I am constantly wishing I could hold it tighter so it would not slip away but slip away it does.  Though good theater, hopefully leaves you with much more than you came with and any sense of loss that the show is over is filled with the feeling you experienced something great that cannot be taken away.

Ah fuck, I got sentimental. Someone call Spielberg.

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