Ensemble Theatre has a hit with its rendition of dark comedy ‘Jerusalem’

By Bob Abelman

Like the opening moments of a contemporary staging of a Shakespeare play, it takes a while to adjust to the unfamiliar rhythms that flow through Ensemble Theatre’s staging of Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.”

It’s not so much the West Country English accent of the characters that takes some getting used to; it’s the dangerous undertow lurking just beneath the play’s brash and occasionally crude comedy.

Fortunately, the show clocks in at three hours, so there is plenty of time to get one’s bearings. And this terrific staging of this intriguing play provides plenty of incentive to do so.

The story revolves around the slow-moving but quick-witted Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mitch Rose), an inert anarchist who lives in a run-down trailer in the Wiltshire woods in southwest England. The surrounding encampment, littered with discarded furniture and empty beer cans, serves as a safe haven, playground and pharmacy for the aimless, ostracized teens (James Rankin, Kyle Huff, Michael Johnson, Becca Moseley and Leah Smith) who Rooster attracts.

Part of the attraction is the attention and backhanded affection Rooster doles out with each gram of cheap narcotic. He calls the kids “beloved spongers.” But it is also his evocative storytelling grounded in magic and mythology, for Rooster is a battle-scarred and war-weary holdover from a forgotten time — equal parts dragon-slayer and Pied Piper — and these latter-day Lost Boys and Girls are in desperate need of enchantment and a champion.

Modern dragons in need of slaying include local authorities (Valerie Young and August Scarapelli) and homeowners from the encroaching neighborhoods, who are mounting a battle to get Rooster evicted. They see him as little more than a property squatter and bad influence. His ex-girlfriend (Brittni Shambaugh Addison) sees him as a deadbeat dad lost in what he affectionately refers to as an “alcoholic, bucolic frolic.”

So do we, at first. But then we listen to his tall tales, masterfully presented by Rose with a mesmerizing combination of mischief and mysticism.

We hear romantic soliloquies about the bygone days of ancient heroes, spoken by the delightful, drug-addled “Professor” who occasionally ventures into the encampment and is brilliantly portrayed by Dana Hart.

We watch pub owner Wesley, played with immense tenderness by David Vegh, as he loses his dignity and cultural identity to corporate franchising.

And we observe a young girl (Katja Yacker) in an angel’s costume attempting to sing a verse from William Blake’s short, nationalistic poem, “Jerusalem,” only to be drowned out by blasts of head-banging rock ‘n’ roll.

And it then becomes clear that Rooster is the keeper of the nation’s history and heritage, which is being forgotten or forsaken with each passing generation. And we realize that the undertow lurking beneath the play’s humor is the possibility of its disappearance forever.

“Jerusalem” is at once irreverently funny and quite foreboding, and director Ian Wolfgang Hinz and his extremely talented, fully committed ensemble perfectly balance the humor and drama. Contributions by Hinz’s designers (set by Walter Boswell, lighting by Bryanna Bauman, costumes by Meg Parrish) are invaluable in this regard.

While it takes a bit too long for Rose’s Rooster to win us over in the opening scene — in fact, everyone involved seems to be working too hard to establish their characters — win us over he does. And he holds court for the rest of this three-act play.

“Jerusalem” reports on the state of the nation, that nation being Britain. But its themes and its characters resonate in the U.S., as was demonstrated in the immensely successful 2011 Broadway run and in this wonderful Ensemble Theatre production. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Jerusalem”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd. in Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through May 21

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$24, call 216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.org

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow him at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 1, 2016.

Lead image: From left: Michael Johnson as Davey, Becca Moseley as Pea, James Rankin as Ginger, Mitch Rose as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, Kyle Huff as Lee and Leah Smith as Tanya. PHOTO | Celeste Cosentino