Some British plays make the trans-Atlantic crossing with ease. Others need quite a bit of explaining before their soul is fully revealed.
Among the many impressive achievements of the Profiles Theatre production of “Jerusalem” — Jezz Butterworth’s raging yet often lushly poetic saga of a ferociously self-mythologizing free spirit who must face the consequences of having long outlived, if not outgrown his wild youth — is how immediately comprehensible and universal it turns out to be.
This Midwest premiere of Butterworth’s 2008 play (unquestionably a coup for Profiles), is not just superbly directed by Joe Jahraus but features an exceptional portrayal of the pivotal role of Johnny “Rooster” Byron by Darrell W. Cox that is a reminder of what a superb actor he can be.
And it is far more intimate, poignant and communal in feel than the 2011 Broadway edition that featured its original star, Mark Rylance (winner of this year’s Academy Award for best supporting actor in “Bridge of Spies”). With that celebrity vibe removed — and a group of gifted young actors to play Rooster’s groupies in classic Chicago ensemble style — the play arrives here with a far richer and more realistic quality that underlines its essential tragic edge.
When: Extended through May 22
Where: Profiles Theatre,
4139 N. Broadway
Tickets: $35 – $40
Info: (773) 549-1815;
Run time: 2 hours and
50 minutes with two intermissions
Butterworth’s play takes its title from a William Blake poem in which he muses on whether Christ ever made a divine visit to England before the arrival of the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution and, by extension, the ravenously capitalist society of contemporary Britain.
Rooster is hardly living a life of divinity. An aging mix of hippie and hell-raiser who was something of a small-time Evil Knievel-like daredevil in his day, he is now middle-aged, living a raw survivalist existence in a battered van on woodlands outside the English town of Flintock.
Rooster deals drugs, and his dump of an outpost (on which he hasn’t paid taxes in decades) has become the gathering spot for several unhappy male friends, as well as teenagers (mostly girls) too young to be served in bars and in a quest for sex and adventure beyond the eyes of their parents. He is largely estranged from Dawn (Erika Napoletano, who expertly nails her crucial scene with Rooster), his former lover and the mother of his 6-year-old son.
So it is not surprising that the local council wants this guy evicted. And they have issued the final order, to be carried out right after St. George’s Day — the holiday when the town puts on a fair and revives some of its most ancient rituals.
Hanging out with Rooster are a group of surprisingly touching losers and users: Ginger (Jake Scczepaniak in a terrifically drug-addled turn as a plasterer and wannabe DJ); Lee (the charismatic Scott Wolf, as the seeker who plans to leave for a new life in Australia); Davey (the earthy Eric Salas, who works in a slaughterhouse); and the elderly Professor (deftly played by Patrick Thornton). Stopping by at times is Wesley (Jeff Gamlin), the tavern-keeper who aches for a bit of his free past. The girls include sexy Pea (Alison Hixon), naive Tanya (Lyssie Garrison), and, most perilously, Phaedra (the lovely Samantha Tennant), whose father (played by Christian Isely) has it in for Rooster.
Though defiant to the end, Rooster — aging, essentially alone, and hopelessly stuck in the past — has nowhere to go. And in a strange way his brutal uprooting — and the brief bit of redemption that comes with the profoundly touching list of what is of most value in life that he delivers to his son — is the only legacy he can expect.
“Jerusalem” (with a fantastically gritty set by Thad Hallstein, lighting by Mike Rathbun, sound by Brandon Reed and costumes by AmarA*jk) is a massive undertaking for Profiles. And they have tapped all that is holy and profane in it.