Friday, April 22, 2011

Jerusalem: Into the Woods with Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance as "Rooster" Byron

If you decide to check out the production of Jerusalem, the ponderous and meandering showcase for Mark Rylance’s not inconsiderable talents now on view at The Music Box, you may find your mind wandering upon occasion as you strain to sort out accents and try to figure out if there is anything like a plot that runs through the three-hour event. 

Here’s one mental game you can play with yourself.  Who does Rylance’s character, Johnny “Rooster” Byron remind you of?  Here is my own partial list:

·      Falstaff—perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest creation—charismatic and repulsive in equal measure. 

·      The Pied Piper, leading the village children astray.

·      Pan, the amoral seducer.

·      Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up.

·      Ed Bloom, the character played by Albert Finney in the movie “Big Fish,” a weaver of magical tales that proved, in the end, to have a basis in reality.

·      Big John, the pedophile played by Brian Cox in the film “L. I. E.”

·      Archie Rice, the burned-out vaudevillian portrayed so memorably by Laurence Olivier in John Osbourne’s “The Entertainer.” 

You can’t go wrong.  Rylance gives us all of them and more as he roars his way through Jerusalem, written by Jez Butterworth and coming to us by way of an acclaimed production at the Royal Court Theatre in London. 

Look—you either love Rylance or you think of him as too much of a good thing.  I’m in the latter camp.  I admired his exquisite farcical timing in Boeing Boeing a couple of seasons back, but I avoided La BĂȘte, even though I am told I missed the greatest comic monologue ever in the history of theater.  Now, with Jerusalem, I found myself once again appreciating his ability to completely take over a role and dominate every single moment of the play, but I also found his portrayal of “Rooster” Byron to fall into the “sound and fury” category, all surface and lacking any of the subtlety that would truly bring the character to life. 

I much preferred some of the smaller performances, particularly those of Alan David as The Professor, but also Mackenzie Crook as Ginger and John Gallagher, Jr. as Lee.  All of their characters—sidekicks and hangers-on though they may be—drew  me in far more than did Rylance. 

Rylance’s “Rooster” Byron is a rooster indeed, a crowing, self-inflating supplier of drugs and alcohol and dreams to young teenagers who serve as an audience for his tall tales, in which he evokes a kind of Shakespearean Forest of Arden or an Arcadia or a Shangri-La or some other mystical, mythical place.   His kingdom is the mobile home he has parked for years just outside of a suburban tract, and his neighbors—at least the adults among them—would just as soon send him packing.  The opening scene, which might make you think you have wandered into a performance of American Idiot by mistake, will tell you all you need to know about why he is not considered to be adding value to the community. 

Of the three acts that comprise Jerusalem, only Act II seems to be going somewhere, with our “Falstaff” appearing to be moving along the path toward rejection and self-destruction.  But that potential movement of plot fades and we are left with what amounts to a character study.  That the character is both larger-than-life and a scourge on society does not, in my view, make the trip worth the effort—even if Jerusalem winds up walking away with a Tony Award for best play and another for best performance by a leading actor. 

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