Theater: Saint Rylance Of "Jerusalem"

JERUSALEM *** out of ****

Is there a better, more versatile stage actor alive than Mark Rylance? Comedy, drama, tragedy -- he handles it all with aplomb, often in the same breath. Jez Butterworth's new drama Jerusalem gives Rylance a number of hilarious, gripping monologues and he makes the most of them, beguiling and charming and dazzling us with Falstaffian ease. You wouldn't want to miss Rylance in anything and certainly not in a solid new play that has been praised to high heaven in the UK. It almost singlehandedly turned the Royal Court Theatre into the hottest place in town (Pultizer Prize winner Clybourne Park, anyone?) and it's easy to see why, especially with Rylance at its heart.

Rylance plays -- or rather embodies, brings to life, joyously animates -- Johnny "Rooster" Byron. His caravan is stranded in a public wood slowly encroached by new housing developments. Rooster is the sort of washed-up adult who always attracts teenagers and layabouts, kids looking to score some weed and happy to be caught up in his Pied Piper antics.

The mood is set with deadpan efficiency right from the start. A young woman begins singing an angelic version of the unofficial UK national anthem "Jerusalem" only to have it overwhelmed by the raucous energy of a rave featuring drunken, lascivious partying. The chaos abruptly ends as the house lights come up on two city officials standing among the rubble of the event, unsuccessfully trying to serve Rooster with a notice that he must pack up and go by the end of the day or they'll do it for him.

It also happens to be fair day, which is like a county fair in the US but far more important since everyone in town takes part in one way or another it seems, whether it's the local barkeep dressing up for a Morris dance or Rooster once upon a time entertaining crowds with his Evil Knievel style daredevil stunts. Rooster has sired a little boy and has promised the lad to take him to fair day though by now even a six year old child knows not to depend on him. Rooster is far more likely to be caught up in the drama of his current favorite Lee (John Gallagher Jr.), a Lost Boy who is leaving for Australia the next day and wants one final hurrah. Mackenzie Crook (of the UK Office) plays Ginger, the butt of everyone's jokes and Alan David is the Professor, a classics-quoting old fellow who trips on acid while observing the inevitable decline of Rooster as modern society closes in.

For Rooster is not just a gypsy-like wanderer who embraces life. He's also England personified, the wild animalistic raw England that has been tamed but still burns at the heart of this once world-conquering Empire. Rooster will spellbind you with a story that begins with the casual comment that he met the guy who built Stonehenge and slowly, deliriously has you listening with open-mouthed pleasure at being taken for a ride while he mentions 80 foot tall giants (who can't always be trusted) and the golden drum they gave him that he can pound on and call for their aid whenever he's in trouble. When Ginger tries yet again to call Rooster on his whopping lies and wonders where exactly this golden drum he's bragging about might be, Rooster trumps him by casually saying he's sitting on it, only to have Ginger leap up and everyone gasp when a rug is removed and there indeed is a drum of impressive size. Yes, it will be pounded on and yes, you'll wonder if maybe Rooster was telling the truth after all.

Jerusalem is a solid work and no, it's not too English. An untrammeled romantic past versus a dull, middle class present is hardly a tension you can't grasp if you don't live in Yorkshire. It didn't cut too deeply for me, however. When it seems like Lee has betrayed Rooster by growing up a la Prince Hal, I felt no pain or sadness. It's clear from the start that Rooster is the sort of figure who can amaze you at 15 and seem a bit sad when you're 30. Watching Rooster be so hapless with his little son takes care of that rather quickly. Even more confusing is the "missing" girl who has been hiding out from her step-father, the same girl who sang "Jerusalem" at the top of the show. That step-dad may be molesting her, but it's not clear how we're supposed to feel when her fate is resolved after a tug of war between Rooster and the bastard.

Gallagher, an excellent actor, does well by Lee, though he has yet to find the rhythm of Lee's funniest scene. Director Ian Rickson seamlessly melds the new Americans with the remaining UK cast. The sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph combined with the original music by Stephen Warbeck captures nicely the tension between a dwindling nature and modern life. And the scenic design by Ultz (who also did the costumes) is a marvel of giant trees stretching up to the sky.

Besides, you can't go far wrong with Rylance on hand. Mix in Sandy Denny and you can't miss. She was one of the great pop singers of them all and this show uses her classic tune "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" to heart-wrenching effect in a scene where Rooster is finally quiet for a change. And at the very end of Jerusalem, when Rylance as Rooster is calling a curse down on all the bourgeoisie who want to see him run out of town, when the earth literally shakes with his fury, you know it's just a con but you can't help it and you glimpse up in the air, wondering if the giants are about to arrive.

THE 2010-2011 THEATER SEASON (ratings on a four star system)

Angels in America revival at Signature *** out of ****
Anything Goes ** 1/2
Arcadia with Billy Crudup *** 1/2
Being Harold Pinter ** 1/2
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo **
Between Worlds/Entre Mundos * 1/2
Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse **
Blood From A Stone ** 1/2
The Broadway Musicals Of 1921 at Town Hall ***
Cactus Flower *
Catch Me If You Can *** 1/2
Devil Boys From Beyond **
The Diary Of A Madman with Geoffrey Rush at BAM ***
The Divine Sister *** 1/2
Double Falsehood **
The Dream Of The Burning Boy ** 1/2
Driving Miss Daisy **
Elf *
Elling **
A Free Man Of Color ** 1/2
Gatz ***
Ghetto Klown ***
Good People with Frances McDormand **
The Grand Manner **
The Great Game ***
Gruesome Playground Injuries ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Nursing **
The Hallway Trilogy: Paraffin ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Rose ***
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying ***
The Importance Of Being Earnest ** 1/2
The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church *** 1/2
John Gabriel Borkman * 1/2
La Bete ** 1/2
Les Miserables ***
Lombardi **
Macbeth with John Douglas Thompson **
The Merchant Of Venice *** 1/2
Middletown ***
Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend ***
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore *
Mistakes Were Made ** 1/2
The Motherf**ker With The Hat ***
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The Nightingale and Other Short Fables at BAM ***
Other Desert Cities **
Our Town with Helen Hunt ***
The Pee-wee Herman Show ***
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical * 1/2
The Road To Qatar *
Room ***
The Scottsboro Boys ****
Sleep No More *** 1/2
Small Craft Warnings zero stars
Three Sisters (w Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) *** 1/2
Timon Of Athens at Public with Richard Thomas ***
War Horse ***
We're Gonna Die ***
The Whipping Man **
Wings **
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown **
Wonderland *

Blood Ties ***
Fellowship * 1/2
Fingers and Toes ** 1/2
Frog Kiss *** 1/2
The Great Unknown ** 1/2
Nighttime Traffic **
Our Country *
PopArt *
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical ** 1/2
Show Choir **
Tess: The New Musical **
Trav'lin' ***
Without You *** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz was provided with tickets to this show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.