You have to admire a theater company that goes for the big lift, attempting a play that offers a multitude of opportunities for missteps. It is in those moments that you can see truly remarkable productions, the ones where reach exceeds grasp and something magical is created.
Ensemble Theatre is attempting such a feat with their current production of Jerusalem by the British playwright Jez Butterworth. While it doesn't entirely succeed, there are some sparkling moments that are swept along on the sheer bravado of attempting the piece in the first place.
This script is a challenge: At nearly three hours, it requires the cast to keep the audience involved in a story that appears to have precious little depth. Johnny "Rooster" Byron is a man entering middle age who lives in a ramshackle Airstream in a patch of woods in England, teetering on the edge of urban sprawl. He spends his days drinking and drugging with teenage pals who show up there to get high and screw around.
Rooster is a familiar non-conformist/drug dealer type, bawdy and brazen when he's not swacked out of his mind on booze, pot, cocaine and anything else he can get his hands on. And on this day, approaching his town's annual festival, he's particularly agitated. You see, he used to perform as an Evel Knievel-style motorcycle daredevil, until he face-planted into one too many buses and had to retire. And he's worried that his 29-year stay in his bucolic haven is coming to an end, with the approach of "estate housing," a public housing development.
One of the bright spots in this production is Mitch Rose, who plays Rooster with boozy bravado and a nice touch with the stories he spins for his adoring cadre of misfits. One prime example is the yarn he spins at the start of Act 2, tracing the journey of a fired bullet that winds up in his teeth when he emerges from his mother's womb. (Yes, he claims he was born with a full set of chompers.) Indeed, the whole Byron clan was supposedly legendary for many things, including a rare and much-desired plasma that Rooster's paid handsomely for at the local blood bank.
Unfortunately, his band of slackers never feels real or particularly interesting. An exception is James Rankin, who manages to fashion an interesting character as Ginger, a dreamy and tentative young man who seems trapped inside Rooster's endless recollections.
Rooster also has a backstory that arrives in the flesh when old flame Dawn shows up with the 6-year-old son she and Rooster conceived. Here, a question arises as to why this apparently sensible woman would have a child with this sack of addictions. But once she starts smiling and cooing at Rooster's rambling riffs, the answer appears. Butterworth wants us to see Rooster as a romantic ideal, an unfettered man who lives by his own rules and gives the finger to society and its expectations.
But as charming as Rose manages to make Rooster, the character never quite elevates beyond the level of a mildly diverting fellow who needs a long stretch at the Betty Ford Clinic. When you package idealism in a package this offensive and profane, you need all the elements to work perfectly. And here, they don't.
Director Ian Wolfgang Hinz has proven in the past that he can beautifully orchestrate large cast shows. But in this instance, there are too many carbon-copy characters and too many rushed or ignored beats. This lack of attention to detail even extends to the flask from which Rooster constantly swigs. Aside from the fact that he drinks enough to empty that flask multiple times in each act, one wonders why this walking dumpster fire would bother with such an elegant container when a full bottle of whiskey is on the set.
Clearly, the playwright has bigger fish to fry thematically, especially since the play features a fairy that is the posthumous embodiment of a teen girl who used to hang with Rooster. There are metaphors to be had comparing this raggedy outfit to Britain, or aspects of that government. But this Ensemble production, energetic as it is, is too fragmented to land those thoughts effectively.
JerusalemThrough May 21 at Ensemble Theatre
2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org