Sam D. White in Strollers Theatre's <i>Jerusalem</i>
I had never received a vocabulary sheet upon entering the doors of a theater, not until attending the Strollers Theatre production of Jerusalem, a much-lauded play by English writer Jez Butterworth (through May 31 at the Bartell). The three-act, three-hour-long show is full of humor and drunken antics, with a smattering a literary allusions to boot.
The show follows approximately 24 hours in the life of Johnny "Rooster" Byron (Sam D. White), a man who is wanted by nearly everyone in his rural English village. On the day of the local fair, Rooster is caught between his responsibilities and his commitment to living an exciting life. The threat of eviction looms throughout the show, but is tucked into the storyline as Rooster faces consequences for his wild lifestyle, which includes dealing drugs and drinking lots of alcohol.
Each act of Jerusalem depicts a different view of Rooster's relationships with friends, family and the law. The story accumulates layers as characters come and go, culminating in an explosive ending. But overall, the acting trumps the tale itself. The actors, who speak in strong English accents, held the audience's interest throughout the opening-night performance, but the layers of the story began to collapse as more characters were introduced. Before long, the plot became muddled.
That said, White's portrayal of Rooster is a saving grace. He is committed to his character, drinking a raw egg onstage and screaming until his voice is nearly gone. His ability to build complex relationships in short spurts hooks the audience and keeps them engaged in the show, even when the story gets confusing. Rooster's relationship with his son Marky (Calum McClenaghan) and Marky's mother, Dawn (Sarah Luedtke), fills the second act of the show with an atmosphere of curiosity. The dialogue among these characters raises several questions whose answers are unclear.
Though the many characters don't help to clarify the plot, the responsiveness of each actor is a plus. They play off of each other both physically and emotionally. The show gains speed at the end as the storylines come to a close and the group of actors becomes smaller and more intimate. At this point, the one-on-one interactions become a focus.
Interestingly, the star of the show seems to be the set. The entire production takes place in a single rural setting with many realistic and functional parts, including an ax and a pile of wood Rooster hacks into halfway through the show. I won't give away how it works its magic, but I can say that it's a source of ample entertainment. Along with the power of White's Rooster, it makes Jerusalem captivating from start to finish.