The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s world premiere hit Year of the Rooster opened to critical raves when it was first presented in October. Directed by John Giampietro, the play by Youngblood playwright Eric Dufault enjoyed a month-long run to a sold-out audience every night until its original November 24 closing date. The show returned and is extended until February 1 at the same venue on 52nd Street in New York City. It is a must-see if you missed it the first time around.
The high-velocity performances for the current run are every bit as electric, thrilling and dark as in the show’s first run and indeed, the cast and director have raised the stakes and pulled out all the stops to deliver an energetic, in-your-face, fun-filled experience. This is a production which will have wide appeal to young and old, especially those who enjoy edgy, punched-up humor. If you are a romantic, looking for a sweet and lovely romp through the meadows, stay away. Year of the Rooster is not for you and you will say it is “bitter.” Real and gritty and riotous are the handles that apply.
The play takes place presumably in the Midwest or Southwest, in a subculture which appreciates and revels in cockfighting. The playwright clearly illuminates this particular society and the offbeat folks who populate it. They are predominately lower middle class and rough redneck types who gamble to “earn greatness” and prestige; the profit is secondary. There is no one urbane, humanistic or educated among the characters. Much of the punchy humor comes through these flawed individuals who are on the margins of the wider culture and who readily divide into protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains.
We feel sympathy for those like underdog “loser” Gil Pepper, (a convincing Thomas Lyons), who slaves at a McDonald’s to provide a salary and honey mustard for his mom (Delphi Harrington). He lives and cares for Lou, a sharp-tongued, unrelenting senior citizen who is slipping into the grey nebulousness of old age. Gil, influenced by his dad to appreciate cockfighting, has obtained a fabulous rooster that he cherishes and develops for “the big fight” like his own child. With Odysseus Rex (Bobby Moreno) he will achieve honor and respect to make up for his miserable life. If he earns some money, it’s the icing on the cake.
Gil and indirectly his mom are pitted against two vile, aggressively foul-mouthed antagonists, Dickie Thimble (Denny Dale Bess) and the newly promoted McDonald’s Assistant Manager (a convincingly brutal Megan Tusing). Dickie is the cockfight master tyrant who controls the bets and sets up the gambling venues. The McDonald’s Assistant Manager who denigrates Gil’s masculinity is ambitious to rise to the top of the junk food giant and have an autograph book signed by Disney World players (Mickey Mouse, et al.). These character foils are hysterical, wildly drawn and believably portrayed by Bess and Tusing. They clash with the Peppers to increasing comedic effect. Dickie and the Assistant Manager are so incredibly low, unregenerate and stupidly funny, they are reminiscent of folks on the Jerry Springer Show. In other words they are capable of functioning only when they have an occasion to bully and verbally abuse someone (Gil Pepper) whom they perceive is “weaker” than themselves. We are ruthlessly pumped for Gil to wallop them with his mighty cock, “Odie” (short for Odysseus Rex).
The phenomenal, uber-cockfighting heroes who warrant our respect and fear need no introduction as destroyers. They are forged in ancient legends, albeit cracked around the edges: Odysseus Rex as the steroid-pumped, McNuggets=eating, unwitting, enslaved killer cock), and Dickie’s champion, the blinded Bat Dolphin who is completely insane (played humorously by Denny Dale Bess). With their manic, raucous calls, flippy head movements, wicked, jerked glances and chilling cock moves, these two energizer roosters are so fierce they will wipe out their human owners if given the chance. Certainly, they will fight to the death; they are that desperate and that bloodthirsty. Then there is the sweet, feminine hen with curves, Philipa (Tusing), an overfed Perdue chicken who can barely walk. She will be the intended of Odysseus Rex if he is the winner of the monumental, high-stakes battle against Bat Dolphin.
The ensemble cast and fine director, John Giampietro, present the sardonic humor, vitality and mythic ironies of Dufault’s engrossing and layered. What I enjoyed was that the production can be received on any level. You can view the cockfighting subculture and laugh at its craziness and the fun of its sheer dark joy. You can swallow the social criticisms along the way. You can also view the deeper issues. If you’re interested, you may note the shadowy underpinnings of alienation and nullification produced by the social/corporate mercantile-fueled culture. Such alienation and nullification affects individuals’ monstrous needs. One need the playwright reveals is how individuals have the compulsion to recreate their lives as some epic biopic to lift themselves above the drudgery of daily existence. And when they employ animals as their playthings and attempt to elevate them to greatness so that they (the humans) can ride on their tail feathers to fame, the result is both hilarious and poignant. With such themes, the play is a throwback to Greek tragedy and comedy that shouted out the nature of the human condition.