by Lynn on February 20, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, Carlaw and Dundas St, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jez Butterworth

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Set by Nick Blais

Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin

Composer and sound design by Richard Feren

Lighting by André du Toit

Cast: Jason Cadieux

Nicholas Campbell

Brenna Coates

Kim Coates

Shakura Dickson

Diana Donnelly

Peter Fernandes

Christo Graham

Daniel Kash

David Kohlsmith

Katelyn McCulloch

Philip Riccio

Kieran Sequoia

Michael Spencer-Davis

A grab-you-by-the-throat production of a monster of a play with Kim Coates holding you captive with his terrific performance.

 The Story. This is not about Jerusalem, Israel. The title references “Jerusalem” the hymn with words by William Blake. The words conjure “England’s pleasant pastures seen.” And “Till we have built Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land.”

But for Jez Butterworth’s play the lyrics that are sung at the beginning: “….And was Jerusalem builded here,/Among those dark Satanic Mills…” There is nothing idyllic about this England.

Jerusalem is about Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a pied piper of lost souls, usually a group of teenagers (which he calls ‘rats’), who lives in a derelict trailer with a faded Cross of St. George along the side, in one of England’s idyllic woods in Wiltshire.

Johnny is a waster, a drug dealer, a trouble-maker who has been barred from every pub in the area for belligerent behaviour. The local authorities give him notice that they will evict him from the woods because he hasn’t paid taxes in years, is trespassing and the people who live in the spiffy estates around the woods, want him gone.

But Johnny is also a charmer full of stories, the last safe place for underage teens to go for protection and some drugs, and aware of all things in his world.

 The Production. Director Mitchell Cushman believes in creating atmosphere from the get go. The audience enters around the side of the theatre where designer Nick Blais has foliage, junk and stuff.

The throb of rock music blares out of the theatre. When you enter the space it’s pitch dark. In the illuminated playing area a rave is going on with various characters rocking crazily to the music. Climbing up the stairs to find a seat in the dark is a challenge. But once settled you get the whole sweep of Nick Blais’ evocative, ethereal, spooky set.

Thick trees surround the area. The abundant foliage looks like twinkly lights rather than greenery suggesting an idyllic midsummer night’s dream. But in the centre of this beauty is a beat-up, dirty trailer with a faded Cross of St. George on the side. Junk, beer cans, garbage and other kinds of detritus litter the space. There is a trunk/icebox of sorts stage right. There is a vinyl couch with torn cushions in front of the trailer. There is a junky chair stage left near a tree.

The throbbing rave continues with young people dancing in a daze-craze, drinking. A young woman wearing fairy wings slowly wanders in, crosses up and around the trailer and appears at the top of the trailer. She begins to sing the beginning of “Jerusalem” but only leaves without finishing the second verse, stopping at “…Among those dark Satanic (Mills). We get the sense of what playwright Jez Butterworth is going for…this is not the bucolic England of the hymn on which he wants to focus.

The authorities come to serve Rooster (Kim Coates) with his eviction papers. He doesn’t answer their knock or warnings. Rather the fierce sound of a dog barking is heard behind the door of the trailer. The authorities know Rooster doesn’t have a dog. They know he’s barking. They staple the eviction notice to his trailer door and leave.

And then, the moment we’ve been waiting for, Rooster bursts out of his trailer full of bluster, bombast and swagger. As Rooster Kim Coates is in total command. He is mesmerizing.  His hair is longish, droopy mustache, a sneer, eyes gleaming. Rooster wears a sweat-stained, filthy t-shirt. His shoulders are pulled back which pushes his chest forward, making Rooster look barrel-chested and strutting. He has a limp. He prowls his domain. He reaches under the trailer. We hear a chicken clucking. He pulls an egg out and flicks off the chicken feathers. He cracks the egg in a glass, pours some milk, vodka and some ‘powder’ in the mix and downs it. Breakfast.

When his friend Ginger (Philip Riccio) comes to call, Rooster goes into high gear. Stories and hyperbole pour out of him. It’s all blather. I’m intrigued that he talks so much and really says little that means anything.   What makes Rooster so compelling and dangerous is that Kim Coates’ voice is so quiet when he talks. He almost never yells to make a point. He doesn’t have to. The look of him and his command of his space makes one think he’s dangerous. That quiet voice just nails it.

Then there are those moments in Jez Butterworth’s play that reveal so much about Rooster it’s stunning. Rooster is watchful and says early in the play that he knows everything that goes on in that area. It’s late in Act III that we get the full sense of what that means. He notices nature, the animals, has seen a first kiss, a woman burning her love letters, life. And he knows when one of his ‘rats’ has had trouble at home and comes to him for protection.  Coates reveals it all with a quiet build in intensity. Thrilling.

For all of Rooster’s bombast, Ginger offers a challenging voice. Philip Riccio’s Ginger  matches Rooster’s bluster line by line. They spar. They wrangle. They listen, thrust and parry. It’s wonderful to watch and listen to.

Every character has his/her own physical and personality bits. It all comes under the careful gaze of director Mitchell Cushman. It’s not just atmosphere that is important to him but the minute business that defines each character, no matter how small a part. This is a production brimming with the lives of these misfits who have found comfort and acceptance in the company of Rooster, the biggest misfit. Cushman and his team have created the world of Rooster and his followers as well as the world that is ostracising them.

Comment. In Butterworth’s play, the hymn “Jerusalem” is ironic. There is nothing pastoral or gentle about this world. It’s mess and decay surrounded by beauty and money. The established people living in the estate homes just off from Rooster’s woods want him out because he represents an eyesore, violence and someone who does not belong. Even Rooster’s followers look askance at him when the going gets rough. They don’t miss a chance to reference his being a Romany. They use the pejorative word “gypo” as in ‘gypsy’ to insult him. He’s an Englishman who is not accepted by the English. Of course he wants nothing to do with ‘civilization,’ and lives in the woods.

Butterworth generally writes huge plays with social implications. (The Ferryman will be the next play that theatre companies will want to tackle.) His writing is bold, muscular, funny and dazzling. In Jerusalem he’s created one of the most captivating, compelling characters in Rooster, and he’s given us a lot to chew on with his vision of Rooster’s place in England and that magical wood. Mitchell Cushman’s production is a towering accomplishment.

 An Outside the March and Company Theatre Production in association with Starvox Entertainment.

 Opened: Feb. 15, 2018.

Closes: March 10, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.

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