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Theater Review (NYC): Jerusalem

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I have a running “bucket list” of extraordinary artists whom I would like to see perform live. Happily, I’ve seen many of the veterans on my list – Stevie Wonder, Prince, Maxwell, Beyonce – in action. Yesterday I beheld a relative newbie from my list in a “must see” production: the glorious Mark Rylance in Jerusalem on Broadway.

Prior to my postgraduate course in London last year, Rylance was not on my radar. So thorough was my oblivion that I passed on a chance to see him in Jerusalem in London when a classmate organized a group outing to see the play. Reactions to the production were mixed, but everyone agreed that Rylance was spectacular.

When a group of us ran into him while hanging out for another classmate’s birthday, the weight of his presence still didn’t resonate. Despite efforts to the contrary, I sometimes get starstruck to the point of paralysis, particularly in the presence of the magnificence that I’ve come to equate with Rylance and his work. Respectfully yet devil-may-care-lessly, I ran up to him to see if he would take a picture with the birthday boy … or sign an autograph – I can’t remember which.

A Shakespeare geek, I didn’t really “get it” until, while working on my graduate portfolio in my final semester last summer, I discovered that he played the title role in Shakespeare’s Globe’s inaugural production of Henry V – and served as their Artistic Director for 10 years – during the groundbreaking resurgence of the “original practices” movement* in Shakespeare study and performance around the turn of the 21st century. As part of my research, I watched a video of one of those historic performances and read many reviews about the production’s run. At that point, my newfound knowledge crystallized with all the great things that I’d heard about Rylance from teachers and classmates.

Naturally, when I found out that Jerusalem was coming to Broadway a few months after I returned to NYC once my program ended, I was not going to miss it – or him – this time. Happily, neither disappointed.

Jerusalem takes place over a few days – on St. George’s Day and during the annual Flintock Fair – prior to the eviction of larger-than-life squatter and drug dealer Johnny “Rooster” Byron from a tract of land that will be razed to build new homes. “Rooster” is a sort of godfather (in every sense of the word) to the teens in his community who parley and party (in every sense of the word) at his … flat. This lot includes last year’s 15-year-old queen of the fair – who went missing while dressed up in a fairy costume. Rooster’s potential role in her disappearance adds to his pending dilemma.

Even though Jerusalem is set in contemporary England, it has an epic feel.

The language of the play is rich and deceptively dense. Despite having a decent grasp of the accents and cultural references from my time in the UK, I found myself focusing on the dialogue with the same intensity needed for a classical play with which I’m not readily familiar. It was refreshing, but not surprising, to learn that the robust language was also a major draw for Rylance in choosing to join the cast. “I love working with writers who are really bold with their language,” he told Stuart Miller in an interview for Jerusalem‘s Playbill.**

While I usually rely on my broad knowledge base and fact-check as I write, I thought I’d need extra research (or, at least, another viewing) to thoroughly understand the nuances and allusions throughout the play. However, the playwright, Jez Butterworth, disspelled this reasoning. “Nobody wants to be in a situation where you feel you need a kind of crib sheet in a play,” he said in an interview with Robert Simonson for Jerusalem‘s Playbill. Butterworth concedes to only two of many thematic motifs attributed to Jerusalem by critics: St. George’s Day and the English national song that is the play’s namesake.*** 

This makes the play sound a bit like a heady bore, which it is not. While Jerusalem‘s plot is relatively anticlimactic, the language, acting, and characters are entertaining and engaging. It is a bright yet seedy romp. Amidst the pathos, there is a rousing sense of play and danger. Literal danger to an extent as Rylance dallies with “alcohol,” mud, and an axe, and hobbles so close to the edge of the stage sometimes that it looks like he might fall into an audience member’s lap.

My focus started to wane a bit in the third act; but, for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the afternoon with this clan, especially “Rooster.” The entire cast is excellent, and Rylance is absolutely captivating in (what appears to be) an effortless manner … which is brilliant and ironic considering how demanding such a virtuosic role must be … eight shows per week. (What stamina!!)

Ultimately, Jerusalem was worth the (unneccessary) wait. You’ll laugh, you might be startled, you might cringe, and you might cry. You’ll definitely be moved. The play shines like the glint in the eye of its protagonist (Johnny “Rooster” Byron) and star, Mark Rylance. (I pity the actors who take on that role after him. What HUGE shoes to fill.) Carpe diem while they’re playing at The Music Box Theatre. (It’s scheduled to close on August 21, 2011.)

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* “Original practices” refers to an aesthetic in the study and performance of Shakespeare’s work whereby the company attempts to replicate original staging practices from the Elizabethan era. These “practices,” which range from employing all-male casts to techniques like direct address and other forms of actor-audience interplay, are pretty commonplace in Shakespeare performance today. However, this was not the case – to such a large degree – prior to the reopening of Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997.

**See “Forever on Stage” by Stuart Miller in Jerusalem Playbill, The Music Box Theater, New York City, 2011.

*** See “The State of the State? It’s up for debate” by Robert Simonson in Jerusalem Playbill, The Music Box Theater, New York City, 2011.

Image Credit: Photo of Jerusalem Playbill by the author

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