Dallas — A punked-out Joey Folsom in an exquisitely be-spiked biker jacket stares up into a spotlight and yells for all he’s worth at the Sun. With naked hatred, he vows to destroy it. The jacket comes from Skeptical Skull Leatherworks. The hatred…no one knows.
You see, Folsom is playing the part of a rooster named Odysseus Rex in Upstart Productions’ staging of Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault. Though the play centers more on the travails of his hapless cockfighting trainer, Gil Pepper (Brian Witkowicz), at the hands of his rival, Dickie Thimble (Gregory Hullett), it’s really about the American myth of “making it” and the mystery of masculinity.
If you hadn’t noticed from names like “Dickie Thimble” and “Odysseus Rex,” playwright Dufault employs all the toys when it comes to getting his themes across. Some are subtler, but mostly he keeps things brutally clear.
If you wanted to create a character struggling to assert his masculinity, a failed practitioner of the cockfighting arts or more simply a “cocker” would be a pretty clear choice.
Upstart is staging the show in the studio space at the Wyly Theatre as the inaugural production in AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, which is aptly named because this show takes theater to a whole new level.
Denson delivers a riotous, raucous and at times riveting production. The success of which depends mostly on his actors swinging for the stands in their epic attempts to right the errant course of their characters’ lives. This is trailer park tragedy meets punk rock opera. It’s all the destruction of NASCAR crashes without the safety of the cars.
And it might not just be a great time. It just might be a great play, like Flannery O’Connor re-imagined by the Coen brothers. Only this southern vernacular is peppered with the high art of low speak: profanity as pervasive as the hard plains they inhabit. If you are at all sensitive, this is not the play for you.
After the exciting opening invocation, the play follows Gil, who lives in a house built by his father with his dementia-addled, honey-mustard addicted mother, Lou Pepper (Constance Gold Parry). His nametag is misspelled “Girl,” probably by his cornrowed co-worker at McDonald’s, Phillippa (Steph Garrett), where the town’s big-money bully Dickie Thimble picks him on. His plan to leave home, win the girl, beat the bully and escape wage slavery begins and ends with his cock.
Set designer Christopher M. Ham blends the locations of cockfighting ring, farmhouse and McDonald’s in a blatant statement about the mixed-up messes that are Gil’s goals. Large banners touting former rooster greats dwarf the thrust space. The round ring is adorned with some barrels, crates and platforms adorned with chicken wire holding feather and fairground litter. An ugly chair on a platform serves as the house. McDonald’s shows up as trashcan colors and a simple strip on the pedestal that serves as drive through register where Gil stands as unwilling preacher in the church of mercantile mediocrity.
The highlights of the evening are all in the hands of the performers. Witkowicz, somehow, takes us from pity to loathing to pity again as the sad-sack Gil. Gold Parry is equally devoid of a performer’s limiting instinct for self-respect. The two of them achieve a family resemblance of repulsive underachievement. Equally repulsive is Steph Garrett’s aggressive Phillippa, who at once reviles and revels in the train wreck that is Gil. Hullett is uncomfortably comfortable with bossing and bullying. He takes the down-home down and dirty, as well as doubling as the Folsom’s rooster foe in an act ending fight choreographed by Adrian L. Cook that’s a real nail-biter.
Joey Folsom breeches the species barrier and manages to take us with him. Combining fearsome and funny in a passionate portrayal of a creature seemingly created to hate. The surprise of the evening, however, is Garrett’s doubling as a hen intended for Folsom’s rooster. In a fat suit and feather boa courtesy of costume designer Christina Cook, Garrett’s hen, genetically engineered for twice the meat, must be placed on the stage by Gil because her legs can’t hold her weight. This scene bridging the gap between his compulsive rage and her unblinking daffiness might be the most ethereal love scene on stage all year.
The only disappointing part of the evening was the paltry audience on opening night. The playing space allows only 70-some-odd seats. With only a few empty the audience seems patchy and the show remote, at times. It’s hard to get the comedic momentum the endeavor deserves. There were riotously funny parts that audience members stifled behind their programs for fear of sticking out.
Best advice: get a group together, hit the bars (they also serve liquor in the lobby of the Sixth Floor Studio) and turn up for this rowdy ride. The ending is a bit abrupt. But the true test is whether the wait in line is worth the ride.
Rest assured, you’ll want to go again.
It doesn’t end well, or more accurately, it never ends. When you are down, there’s nowhere to go but up. And as much as it seems hopeless, we love a fighter. Maybe that’s what it means to be a man.
Even when what he’s fighting for seems as impossible as conquering the sun.
» This is the first production in the AT&T Performing Arts Center's new Elevator Project series. To read about the series and the other performances, go here.