Jerusalem: There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days

jerusalemThe decline and fall of a civilized society from ancient greatness to modern mediocrity has been the subject of much of British literature for centuries, ranging from William Blake and Lord Byron to Rudyard Kipling and J.R.R. Tolkien. Jerusalem takes place entirely at the ramshackle caravan abode of Byronic anti-hero “Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron” (David Tessier) in the rural parts of the English County of Wiltshire. Walking with a slight limp that is a reminder of an unusually adventurous past, the 50-ish Rooster now spends his time conducting a kind of salon for older burnouts who were his mates growing up and for misfit teenagers looking to escape the strictures of their homes by partying and hanging out with their drug dealer.

The brilliance of Jerusalem is that the establishment types, the government officials and respectable business owners are really the cruel and hateful ones, while Rooster and his ad hoc merry band are the genuinely decent ones. Because the entire play takes place around St. George’s Day, a holiday embracing a patriotic adulation of England and its mythological past, the locals are preoccupied with attending the Flintock Fair, an orgy of now-tame but originally wicker man-like pagan traditions such as Morris Dancing and the crowning of a May Queen. Rooster himself, we learn, in his younger days entertained the fair crowds by jumping rows of lorries, in his final appearance spectacularly crashing into one, cartwheeling across the field, and being pronounced dead; only when it was noticed that the makeshift tomb (created by throwing a sheet over him) was empty did anyone realize that the resurrected Rooster had wandered off, to be found drinking a beer.

St. George, the patron saint of England whose red Christian cross is one of the key elements of tbe British flag and which is featured prominently as the cover of the program, is primarily remembered for his encounter with a dragon: according to the legend, a kingdom was terrorized by a dragon that the people propitiated by feeding it their own children chosen by lot. On the day that the virgin princess and daughter of the king was to be sacrificed to the dragon, St. George miraculously happened upon the scene and fought successfully to rescue the innocent damsel and slay the dragon.

The play opens with “Phaedra” (Shannon Hartman), a 15 year-old girl costumed as a fairy with wings, singing the hymn Jerusalem, an enigmatic poem composed by William Blake as the prelude to his epic Milton and later set to music during the First World War as a patriotic hymn. Yet the words are not explicitly patriotic and often have been adopted by socialists and other critics of the British establishment: “And did those feet in ancient time,/Walk upon England’s mountains green…” Hartman sings in a clear and beautiful a cappella voice, cut off abruptly by a ruckus in the middle of the line “Among those dark satanic–”

Government housing inspectors “Mr. Parsons” (Roger Lemelin) and “Ms. Fawcett” (Rae Mancini) enter to serve a court order of eviction against Rooster: Lemelin is a bureaucratic nebbish subservient to the imperious Mancini who regards everyone with the disdain of a proper governess managing impossible children. As they leave, Rooster surveys the damage from the prior night of partying, Tessier brilliantly engaging in several minutes of nearly silent Chaplin-esque pantomime of a man struggling with a pounding hangover. Rooster’s childhood chum “Ginger” (Jeff Hodge) shows up, a very dim-witted man whose illiteracy is apparent when he is unable to read the notice the inspectors affixed to the caravan.

The smartly-dressed “Professor” (John Michael Richardson), presumably a teacher of poetry and literature before going senile, on his way to the fair greets Rooster by reciting The Bounty of Our Age, an obscure poem by the even more obscure 17th Century poet Henry Farley about going to a county fair: “To see a strange outlandish fowl/A quaint baboon, an ape, an owl/A dancing bear, a giant’s bone…” The gentle Professor is a holy fool who often speaks truth and wisdom, but is ignored or not understood.

Passed-out survivors from the party begin to awaken, including “Lee” (Andrew Iacovelli), “Davey” (Jonathan Fisher), “Pea” (Valerie Westgate) and “Tanya” (Andrea Reid). Lee is planning to emigrate to Australia the next day, and Tanya keeps offering him “a free one” implying that she is a prostitute who usually charges.

A childhood friend of Rooster’s who has gone mostly respectable and now is the local publican, “Wesley” (Dave Pizelli) appears, dressed as a dancer to participate in a Morris side because the brewery that supplies him pressured him into doing it on the grounds that it would be good for business. Rooster and the others make fun of his outlandish traditional costume, complete with bells and kerchiefs. Wesley, however, has come to warn Rooster that the village is looking for Phaedra, who has run off despite everyone expecting her to be at the fair as the outgoing May Queen from last year to crown the new one. Rooster tells him he does not know where Phaedra is.

Rooster’s ex “Dawn” (Melissa Penick) arrives with their young son “Marky,” who was promised that Rooster will take him to the fair. (The role of “Marky” is played alternately by the real-life sons of Dave Tessier, Jack and Luke; in the performance reviewed, it was Jack’s turn.) Rooster, in one of the more direct demonstrations of the deficiencies of his character, reneges on the promise, leaving Dawn and her boyfriend to take the child to the fair.

Quite a lot happens, much of it pointedly allegorical. Rooster relates a story of his encounter with a giant, presumably one of the legendary original inhabitants of Britain from William Blake’s much longer poem Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. My personal favorite episode comes in the second act where Rooster demonstrates his remarkable prowess with the Genus 2000 Edition the Trivial Pursuit game, easily answering random questions with correct answers ranging from “Marvin Hamlisch” to “Lord Peter Wimsey,” but ironically stumped by, “Who wrote the words to the popular hymn Jerusalem?” He never gets the chance to answer due to the arrival of “Troy Whitworth” (Ben Conant) who, along with his brother “Frank Whitworth” (Robert Remigo), are convinced that Troy’s daughter, the missing Phaedra, is being hidden by Rooster.

Condensing a couple of thousand years of British history into three hours of snarky comedy is a real accomplishment, and you need know nothing about old folklore or literature to appreciate this play although the allusions are rich if you are inclined to mine them. (Playwright Jez Butterworth has denied in interviews that he intended them, but I find his denial absurd.) Wilbury’s production of Jerusalem is intense and captivating, and it provides a showcase for the substantial talents of Tessier in the lead role as he convincingly portrays a true, larger-than-life British eccentric, a man whose worst idea of hell is being accountable to anyone and anything but himself. Near the end, Rooster’s soliloquy to Marky – played, as noted by Tessier and his own real-life son – is a particularly impressive performance.

Jerusalem, directed by Josh Short, The Wilbury Group, 393 Broad St, PVD. Thu (5/26, 6/2), Fri (5/27, 6/3), Sat (5/28, 6/4) 7:30pm, Sun (5/29) 2pm. Three acts, about 3 hours with 2 intermissions. Web site: thewilburygroup.org/jerusalem.html Telephone: 401-400-7100 E-mail: info@thewilburygroup.org; Facebook event: facebook.com/events/1736364649934593; Tickets: thewilburygroup.org/single-tickets–jerusalem.html

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