WARNING: Two members of BITRSisters are involved in this production- either directly or via the Fells Point Corner Theater. The third reviewer wrote this review, and had no prior knowledge of the show before seeing it. We think it is a fair assessment- but you’ve been warned.
Fells Point Corner Theatre’s offering of Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth is in a word: Ambitious. Perhaps their most ambitious production in living memory. This is because Jerusalem is a play that comes with a text riddled with English slang and a cadence so foreign to American audiences it might as well be a different language. It has characters so physically dirty and morally reprehensible they are hard to watch and even harder to care about; and a plot so circuitous and difficult to follow it provides the same frustration as attempting to untangle a ball of yarn that a litter of kittens has just finished playing with. All of these obstacle don’t even begin to cover the complex technical elements required for this play.
The show’s plot (what little plot it has) concerns late middle aged Johnny “Rooster” Byron, played here by Ian Blackwell Rogers, on the feast day of St. George. Rooster’s home, a trailer in the woods on the edge of town, serves as a destination for young teenagers who want to over indulge with drugs, drinking, and sex. The authorities want Rooster gone as there are plans to build a new estate where his trailer stands although this is only really a conflict in the very beginning and at the very end, otherwise it goes unmentioned. This pastoral play attempts to examine the relationship between the encroaching urban sprawl with the partying wannabe-pantheistic rural atmosphere of Rooster’s forest. The play, clocking in at over three hours, is certainly more of a character study than a play concerned with plot.
Jerusalem derives its name from a line in the William Blake poem “And did those feet in ancient time” found in the preface of his epic Milton: A Poem in Two Books. William Blake’s work was more often than not a charge for socialistic ideologies that he would masquerade as protestant fables or stories in an attempt to make them more accessible to his audience. His work challenged readers to realize that they were conditioned by society to think, speak, and act in ways that only benefited the powerful. His work claimed that only through realizing this and speaking our own private honesties could the oppressive powers of the early industrial revolution be overthrown. As Ann Turiano points out in her director’s notes “Naming something holds power; there is magic in the act.”
Butterworth attempts to capture this same idea in Jerusalem, but unfortunately never manages to actually hit the idea home. He flies around it without ever landing. This presents a rather difficult task for the production team. The script has basically no plot, there’s not a single character that makes us invested in their outcome, and the playwright doesn’t successfully explore any philosophical ideas. It takes considerable talent and skill to overcome such hurdles.
Most successful at overcoming the obstacles in the script is set designer Chris Flint. Flint has officially set the new standard for what is possible in the Baltimore Theatre scene when it comes to set construction. The execution of a full trailer onstage was inspired, with actual grass and dirt covering the stage. Every set designer in Baltimore will now be measured to this bar that Mr. Flint established. There was an attention to detail that frankly I did not think FPCT capable of accomplishing. They proved me absolutely wrong with this set. The only drawback to this breathtaking accomplishment is that at times it seemed to almost swallow the production. I found myself more intrigued with the story the set was telling, than I was with what the dialogue was saying. Nonetheless Flint has now secured himself as the leader of his craft at this level in the Baltimore community.
The sound design by Devyn DeGuzman is perhaps one of the most astounding sound designs I’ve ever heard. Period. Consistently throughout the show I was impressed with the texture of the soundscape that was created and how it elevated every element of the show.
An important step to making a challenging show like this accessible is assembling the perfect ensemble. It is quite easy to tell that director Ann Turiano went to great lengths to try and make sure her ensemble of over a dozen actors felt as though they had a deep history with each other and could convey group dynamic easily. This aspect of the ensemble was unclockable! However whenever a member of the ensemble would step out and have a two or three person scene, each one seemed to flounder just a bit. Each member of the ensemble had inconsistent accents, surface level physicality choices, and generally hollow performances.
I can’t emphasize enough that I do credit the majority of these issues to the script itself. With the exception of the main character Rooster, there is not a single three dimensional or compelling character in the text, so there’s only so much these actors can do with what they’ve been given. But with that being said, I found it increasingly harder and harder to care about what happened to any of the ensemble characters as the play dragged on. The most compelling moments where when they were interacting as an ensemble in group dances and Eucharistic acid trips.
One more thing on the ensemble before I move on, and this is perhaps my biggest issue with Butterworth as a playwright and this play as a script, the women characters (all four of them) simply revolve around the male characters. None of them have a storyline that doesn’t center a man’s experience over theirs. If that weren’t bad enough, all the male characters embody a textbook definition of toxic masculinity, this is highlighted when Rooster tells his son at the climax of the show something along the lines of “have as many women as you can. No man went to his grave wishing he had one less woman.”
There are many people, most of whose opinion I respect immensely, that claim Jerusalem is one of the best plays written in this century. For me, it’s hard to appreciate the words of a playwright and weigh them as valuable when they treat their women characters as objects that only exist for how they can further a man’s plotline. Surely poor representation of women characters in your show disqualifies you from the list of extraordinary playwrights?
Now to the credit of Ann Turiano and the women actors of the ensemble, great measures were clearly taken in order to attempt to bring these characters more agency and power, and that effort reads quite plainly. But any real power or complexity cannot be brought to these characters when the playwright hasn’t given them any in the text.
Despite Butterworth crafting a play that requires 14 actors, this is without a doubt, Rooster’s story. Written specifically for multiple award winning actor Mark Rylance and based off real life person Mickey Lay, there are probably only a handful of people who can play this character to the fullness that is needed for the play to succeed. Rooster as a character must be a paradox. He must be equal parts disgusting yet alluring, commanding yet weak, immoral yet spiritual, insignificant yet larger than life. Ian Blackwell Rogers as Rooster was, to use an analogy, flying the right plane but never quite able to land it.
He masterfully handled the commanding and imposing parts of Rooster, nailing the larger than life characteristics. Rogers’ vocal delivery had a technical prowess that is refreshing to see in the Baltimore community, and he moved with a viciousness that brought to mind the giants he speaks of throughout the show. However the smaller, more internal nuances of his character never managed to surface in any real palatable way. Moments where he was going for emotional vulnerability had a tendency to come across as a bit stiff and wooden. This appeared to be a choice to have Rooster desperate to, but unable to mature enough, to have meaningful emotional connections. The issue here is that although Rogers picks realistic choices they still only serve to further us from the already unlikeable character. By not exposing any of Rooster’s vulnerability or humanity to us I found myself rather apathetic about him and his fate.
While Rogers doesn’t completely succeed as Rooster he doesn’t completely fail either. He just lands somewhere in the middle. To sum up: he proves himself to be a talented and capable actor, this is just a really fucking hard role.
This brings me to the direction of the piece. Ann Turiano attacked this piece with a level of wit and intellect that is nothing short of absolutely impressive. Every piece of this production was thoroughly researched and intentionally executed. With this play however that served as a double edged sword. The production had a tendency of being too cerebral for a show that is all about the resiliency of spirit. While Turiano executed her clear point of view as a director with precision, there was still something missing in its final presentation. The whole of the play was somehow less than the sum of its parts. More directly, once all of the elements of the play were strung together, the soul was still missing. An argument could be made for that being a shortcoming of the script, and I would not entirely disagree. The reality of the situation is that the demands of this play are simply too large for a community theatre to be able to elevate it to its fullest potential, no matter how talented or capable the director and creative team are.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? There are lots of reasons to justify going: wonderful technical accomplishments, interesting (if not fully explored) ideological concepts, and a show that is not often produced at community theatres (or at all for that matter). But ultimately the production is unable to make up for an ambiguous plot, rambling dialogue, misogynistic characters, and a three hour and fifteen minute run time. For all that’s good about this production, I would still stay home for this play. (B) (Editor’s Note: Or come and see for yourself what all the hubbub is about.)
Running Time 3 hours with 2 ten-minute intermissions. Running through February 3rd.