For those of you with a penchant for theatre about cockfighting, ‘tis the season indeed for plays on the subject in our fair city of Baltimore. As Fells Point Corner Theater is closing its very fine production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock (which runs through December 20th), Single Carrot Theatre has just opened Year of the Rooster, directed by Dustin C.T. Morris a bizarre and wildly original black comedy by Eric Dufault that shines a spotlight on a group of pitiful souls all grasping for their piece of the elusive American dream, no matter how odd that dream is, or what twisted lengths they will go to to get it.
As the play begins, we meet Gil (a rejected, slovenly Matthew Casella), who works at a McDonald’s in a run down Oklahoma town, represented bleakly here by a pit that looks less like a cockfighting ring and more like a hole, as if the earth just broke open and these creatures came crawling out and populated this place (the set and very cool prop design, including a remote controlled recliner that I covet, are by Jason Randolph). Belittled by his managers and co-workers, and emasculated by his mother (Virginia House), Gil sees salvation in a rooster named Odysseus (Paul Diem), who he has been carefully training to participate in the local cockfights. As Gil begins to see his dreams realized, his fortunes change and he finds an inner strength to the express the confidence that he had suppressed for so long. But when the other characters seek to find and protect their own “prize,” Gil’s world is suddenly shattered and, having finally become drunk on power after being sober for years, he hatches a chilling plan to come back on top.
I was immediately captivated Dufault’s strange story of desperate people living desperate lives. The writing is very funny, but it comes from a place of urgency. And while the whole world of the play is a bit “off” (which I mean in a very good way), the excellent cast performs it with tremendous emotional honesty.
Gil has a true emotional arc here, as we see him rise from browbeaten wimp, to quasi-celebrity, to vengeful maniac and Matthew Casella makes these transitions seamlessly. He had me sympathizing with him, rooting for him, then, at the end, wondering if he was the underdog I thought he was or, rather, wanted him to be all along .
Paul Diem is a riot (and a little terrifying) as Odysseus, the philosophical rooster full of bloodlust and rage, but also with a romantic side. The most tender moment I have seen in a theatre all year is the love scene between the rooster and the hen in this play. You could have heard a pin drop. (Don’t ask. Don’t judge. Just go see it.)
As Gil’s delusional, not really disabled mother, who spends the entire play seated in the aforementioned recliner, Virginia House steals every scene she’s in. Madeline Burrows does double duty as Gil’s co-worker, Philipa, whose dream is to go to Disney World and have sex with one of the characters from The Jungle Book (Wasn’t it Langston Hughes who said, “What happens to a dream deferred?”) and Lucky Lady, an obese hen. As a McDonald’s employee, she brings real sensitivity, to a role that could easily have come off as a caricature. What makes her performance so funny, is how truthful she plays it. As a chicken, well, I didn’t balk at her in a suit of feathers.
The cast is rounded out by Elliott Rauh as Dickie, Gil’s nemesis and Bat Dolphin, Odysseus’, nemesis in the cockfighting ring. Mr. Raugh transforms himself so totally and completely in these two different roles, I had to refer to my program several times as I could not believe it was the same actor. The cast are appropriately outfitted in clothing that just feels grimy to look at. Much like the characters, Jess Rassp’s costumes reek of sweat and disappointment and false hope.
As I left Year of the Rooster, I thought to myself, that there seems something so American, to me at least, of the loser. Perhaps it’s our contribution to the world. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of an American society in which we are conditioned to believe that winning is everything. Not everyone can be a winner, right? You can only have a winner, if you have a loser. There is a long tradition in American playwriting of celebrating these characters, these American losers. Mr. Dufault brings this tradition in to the 21st century with gusto, dark humor and boundless imagination. Long live these losers and long may their stories be told!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission.