Jerusalem

A while ago, we set ourselves the goal of seeing more straight plays on Broadway. Based on our usual steady diet of musicals, we'd say we got a pretty good start this season, breaking out of our shells and opening our eyes to some of the fantastic work that relies on pure dialogue rather than song and dance to tell a compelling story.

Jez Butterworth's Jersualem is a production that first played the West End before opening on Broadway this spring. Johnny "Rooster" Byron, played by the incomparable Mark Rylance, is a kind of rebel hero, hiding away in a trailer in the woods and living a hippie lifestyle, making a stand for his chosen style of life as local authorities move closer and closer toward evicting him from the public land he lives on. Like other similar operations, Rooster's establishment attracts a bevy of misfits looking for refuge and  a place to belong, mostly young teenagers, but also including The Professor, played by Alan David. (I'd love to get a copy of the script and re-read his lines to get a better understanding of why he finds Rooster's life and ideals so attractive.) While the play touched on a lot of English folklore and mythical tales (it takes place on the day of a festival celebrating St. George's Day, essentially equivalent to the Fourth of July in its significance to English national pride), some iPhone-assisted Googling at each of the two intermissions helped us to understand the background of the holiday. While Butterworth's dialogue certainly wasn't simplistic, we didn't find it as difficult to jump into as, say, Tom Stoppard's in Arcadia. There were also a few pop culture references in the first act (undoubtedly updated for American patrons) that helped to draw the audience in.

On a random note, the production's scenic design (by ULTZ...we're still not sure if that's a person or a company?) was AMAZING! It featured a lush forest of greenery, complemented with real grass and dirt planted on the stage floor. Heck, the fly that buzzed around in our faces during the show honestly could have been placed in the theater on purpose.

We'd first begun our worship of Mark Rylance after seeing him in La Bete in the fall and just being generally blown away at his ability to completely command the entire performance. You may remember that we predicted him to take home the 2011 Tony for his leading performance...well, turns out we were right, but Mr. Rylance went above and beyond our forecast, delivering a second Tony-worthy performance in the same theater, in the same season. Reprising the role of Johnny "Rooster" Byron from the play's run at London's Apollo Theatre, Rylance gives a one-of-a-kind performance. To describe his work as riveting does not do it justice. Acting seems to be nowhere in sight; he inhabits Rooster's shoes with sheer being. It was only as we were leaving the theater that it occurred to us what the production would have been without Rylance that the strength of his performance truly sunk in.

Ben Brantley's review talked about Rooster as a mythical figure that maybe never really even existed, but that we all want to believe on some level did exist. He's more of a staunch defender of "The Last Frontier" than a crusader for it, which is interesting to think about when you consider the crusader symbolism behind St. George's flag, which serves as the show curtain.

To put it lightly, it was so cool to see Rylance in both of his stellar performances on Broadway at the Music Box this season, although both performances were completely different. He is such a physically grounded actor who conveys an incredible range of emotions through the way he carries himself on stage. And while I believe that British actors tend towards comedy through physicality more than American actors usually do, Rylance delivers much more than a slapstick comedy routine. It's incredible to watch him move around the stage as Rooster, and to see the way he instills the character with pure silliness (dancing around in a ridiculous, not-quite-sober manner, chugging a delicious milk-and-raw-egg concoction, and doing a headstand into a water trough...a woman in the front row "splash zone" was NOT amused by this), and then, by act three, gradually transitions into an intense, panicked rage that was enthralling and a little scary to watch. The way the character limped around the stage on a bum foot made our own ankles hurt - it's no wonder Rylance thanks his chiropractor in his bio!

We had the fantastic opportunity to see Mr. Rylance in Jerusalem just a few hours prior to watching Joe Mantello's performance in The Normal Heart (to say that the day was intense is a bit of an understatement), and to compare the two most-talked-about performances by leading men in a play this season just a week before the Tony Awards. What it boils down to for us is this: Rylance plays a gigantic character who is largely unlikable, and Mantello plays a character who is so small in the scheme of things, but is doing everything he can to become a force of nature, and is admirable in spite of everything because of that. (Ironically you could switch those two descriptions and they'd still be accurate.) We would have been happy for either man to win recognition for his performance, but while Mantello's performance was more moving to us, Rylance perhaps gives a more unique performance, which is partially credited to him as an actor and partially credited to the role of Rooster itself.

While the play is very much Rylance's to lead, the supporting ensemble very much holds their own. Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, Rooster's only true (or believes himself to be true) cohort gave a fine performance opposite his gigantic scene partner with some very funny lines (he continually insists that he is a DJ by night; whether this is true or not, we never learn for sure, and it doesn't really matter). Without spoiling one of the play's most crucial scenes, Crook is heartbreakingly real in his attempt to act as a friend and rescuer to Rooster.

John Gallagher Jr. as Lee (one of the few roles that were recast when the production transferred to Broadway from the West End) fit in surprisingly well with the rest of the British supporting ensemble. Well, not surprisingly...it should be no surprise that we admire Mr. Gallagher's work very much around here. His character was actually quite similar to the role of Johnny in American Idiot; if we're being super simplistic, both Lee and Johnny are suburban kids who ran away to drugs, alcohol, and the "guidance" of a Fagin-like character to "find" themselves.

While my attention was held captive for the entirety of the play, coming in at nearly three hours, Jerusalem is definitely very demanding on its audience members. Again, not spoiling anything because we think you should go see the production for yourselves, but act three was VERY intense and left us scratching our heads a little bit. I think this is partially because we'd never seen a three-act play before, and on some level had expected act three to be full of answers...and that's not exactly what the end of Jerusalem provides. I also think I came to appreciate the play more after it had a few days to sink in. Even now, I still find myself debating whether Rooster is admirable for holding so tightly to the freedom of lawlessness, or a character with no redeeming qualities, a stoner in the woods whose defeat by society was inevitable.

If you've seen Jerusalem, we'd love to hear your thoughts, because this one is definitely food for thought! If you haven't, Rylance's performance in itself is absolutely unmissable. Be sure to catch this limited engagement before it closes on August 21.

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