Everyone has a story to tell, something that they wish to express artistically for others to experience. The tragedy of this simple truth is that many stories blend together in character, setting, and theme, lending their worth to the author’s sense of self if nowhere else. I cannot fathom how many play synopses I’ve read sum up their content as the tale of a young person with fresh hopes and dreams heading to the big city only to learn lessons in love, life, and art along the way. They’re dull, hackneyed, and repetitive stories that offer little to audiences and theatre as a whole. I mention this because it was refreshing to see that Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster is about one man attaining self-confidence through cockfighting. Certainly not your typical story.
Year of the Rooster follows Gil Pepper (Jason Newman), a complacent man who lives with his mother (Lana Dieterich) in rural Oklahoma where he works as a McDonald’s cashier, as he seizes an opportunity to enter the local cockfighting ring with his skillfully trained (and overly drugged) rooster, Odysseus “Odie” Rex (Jason Liebrecht).
The design of the production was excellent in all regards. Director and scenic designer Mark Pickell once again treats the audience to a finely detailed set, equal in quality to his recent work in Hyde Park Theatre’s The Night Alive, depicting a decaying, middle-American home strewn with barrels, old magazines, chicken cages, and in desperate need of cleaning and repairs. Together with the lighting and sound designers (Patrick Anthony and Lowell Bartholomee respectively), Pickell has made a set that can smoothly transition from the Pepper household, to McDonald’s, to underground cockfighting with losing any sense of pacing or risking the audience’s disbelief.
As director, Pickell’s choices never felt forcibly imposed upon the actors or designs, each piece and player of the show fitting together nicely as a whole. Hyde Park Theatre’s intimate space allows for the visceral glee and rage exhibited by the cast a greater affect upon the audience than a larger venue could allow (even incorporating the audience as the representative cockfighting crowd awaiting spilled blood). Bartholomee should also be recognized for his excellent sound design, making moments as intense as two roosters fighting to the death with ornate weaponry or as mundane as operating a pantomimed register feel authentic.
The two standouts from the production are Kenneth Wayne Bradley as cockfighting promoter Dickie Thimble, and Liebrecht as Odie who set the play’s tone from the first two scenes as Liebrecht angrily threatens the sun (a recurring habit of his you’ll never grow tired of), and Bradley riles up the audience with an almost biblical sermon about the glory of cockfighting and blood sport. Liebrecht shines as the human representation of a steroid-infused rooster; his constant twitching, intense gaze, and infectious anger at the sun, sound, silence, people, and just about anything else in his presence makes him the most intimidating member of the cast (even as just a rooster). He balances nicely with Newman’s timid, sheepish nature, both men struggling to obtain some sense of control in their lives yet constantly moved by the whims of others. Higher on the societal tier of rural Oklahoma, Bradley joins Newman and Liebrecht’s loss of control as he portrays the most influential, and confident man in the room who lashes out when control over his life is threatened by Newman and Liebrecht.
My only concern with the acting comes from early scenes with Newman. His timid, complacent nature is necessary thematically for the show, as well as to exemplify the strength of will of others around him he tries to obtain for himself, but he doesn’t always have the strength to carry scenes on his own. Granted, Newman grew on me quickly as Gil began gaining confidence as a character, but his initial scenes did not leave me engaged in his character or the scene. Supported by Dieterich as Gil’s content, homebound mother, and Julia Bauer as his foul-mouthed, Disney-loving, energetic manager, Philipa, the cast rounds out nicely, each one representative of the kinds of strength and confidence Gil seeks for himself.
Akin to the works of contemporary playwrights Martin McDonagh, Sarah Ruhl, and Stephen Adly Guirgis, Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster is the “bad-ass black comedy about love, underdogs, and cockfighting” Capital T Theatre promised us, and an outstanding success for both Capital T and Hyde Park Theatres. It has certainly left me anxiously awaiting Capital T’s next production, and the continuation of Dufault’s writing career.
Capital T Theatre’s Year of the Rooster continues playing at the Hyde Park Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening at 8pm until September 19th.
★ ★ ★ ★ ✩