Taking a closer look at Madison theater
May 15, 2014
12:51 PM
Stage Write

Sam D. White Rages Against the Universe in Strollers' 'Jerusalem'

PHOTO BY CHARLIE BAUER

Bang the drum loudly: As Rooster Byron, Sam D. White creates a sympathetic portrait of a waster king who's facing his Waterloo. 

When the Bartell Theater Foundation hands out its acting awards in July, Sam D. White’s turn as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Stroller’s Jerusalem (through May 31 in the Bartell Theatre) should be an early leader in the clubhouse. By turns comical and physical, charismatic and heartbreaking, White throws himself into the role with the fury of a drunken dervish. Whether he’s guzzling raw eggs and milk (yes, really), regaling his mates with impossibly tall tales or screaming his lungs raw while beating an oversize drum, it’s impossible to look away from White’s Rooster—even as he hurtles toward inevitable self-destruction.

Rooster’s a good-time Green Man, the waster king of a party trailer paradise in rural England, a guy who draws the dissatisfied souls, both old and teenaged, from nearby Flintock Village. He’s also a wanted man, in more ways than one: His friends want access to his booze and drugs, his son wants to go to the St. George’s Day fair and the local council wants him evicted by tomorrow. Rooster, meanwhile, can’t recall smashing his own TV set in the rager from the night before.

Joel Stone’s set is a wonderful mix of pastoral and dilapidated—the trailer and its trash-strewn environs are a dump, sure, but it’s easy to see why the sylvan charms appeal to the Flintock faithful. (Love that the trailer sports a “Waterloo” sticker, given that Rooster ends up effectively facing his.)

Rooster’s ragtag band of castoffs features plenty of interesting characters. Geremy Webne-Behrman shines as Lee, the only one of Rooster’s crew who seems to stand a chance at a brighter future (even though he’s nearly too frightened to take it). Carl Cawthorne’s goofball Professor brings both a broad hilarity and a welcome dose of classical pathos to the proceedings. The one-one-one scenes between some of these characters prove deeply affecting.

As Rooster’s sad-sack right-hand bloke Ginger, Erik J. Hughes nails his character’s moments of physical comedy—in particular, his third-act encounter with a coconut and a metal helmet is one of the play’s most hysterical moments. His line delivery’s another matter: The pitch of his voice, the challenging dialect and his too-quick pace muddy some of what would otherwise have been funny lines.

White, meanwhile, wraps himself around Butterworth’s rich dialogue, spellbinding the young kids with tall tales of encountering giants and the, um, unusual nature of his conception. When he exhorts his addled crew to help him stand up to the jack-booted police officers gathering to evict him, he’s like Henry V in a beer-stained, brown undershirt.

The play’s ties to classic poetry—the title’s a riff on a William Blake poem about the battle between the natural and industrial worlds—suggest a straight-up battle between the forces of good and evil. But Butterworth’s script works well because it’s a work of careful balance. Rooster’s carefree, earthy life may seem like a freedom-loving lark when the bass is thumping and the whiz is fully stocked, but it’s made painfully clear on multiple occasions just how little his band of merry men (and women) actually care about him. The straight and narrow crowd don’t fare much better: Rooster’s childhood pal Wesley (a droll Tom Steer) has a thriving pub and the respect of the community, but he hates his marriage and longs for the free and randy days of his youth. (And he’s coming out to sample Rooster’s stock, too.)

It’s painful to see just how deeply Rooster’s bought into his own myth-making, and what that continues to cost those in his life, particularly his estranged wife (Sarah Luedtke) and twelve-year old son Markey (Calum McClenaghan).

As White strode out to receive his opening-night applause, he looked absolutely spent, as if he really had been worked over by a gang of thugs and the consequences of his decisions. That’s an impressive level of commitment, and it adds an extra dimension to an already enthralling show.

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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