Few people at Kenyon spend time near the maintenance facilities behind the Taft Apartments. This is partly why it is hard, at first, to tell where the set of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem ends and the location’s regular clutter begins. Old furniture, bottles and red solo cups cover the gravel outside the brick building. A blue tarp is crumpled to one side.
Jerusalem was staged indoors when it was first produced in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2009, but after watching this production, independently directed by Spencer Huffman ’17, it’s hard to see how that could work well. The script alone is an ambitious undertaking, with a two-hour-and-50-minute runtime and a large cast of complex characters. Yet this production goes above and beyond the demands of the play itself, and if it feels eerily real, it is because the actors and crew have committed to the authenticity of its excess. And they fully earn this choice.
Among the maintenance buildings lies the illegal squat of John “Rooster” Byron (Max Pescherine ’17), a middle-aged man whose charismatic personality — and raging parties — draw the city of Flintock’s youth to the woods at the edge of town (much in the same way the play drags its audience to the far end of campus). In fact, the entire show seems to take place at the periphery of the main action, as Byron and his cohort discuss parties of days past while a lively county fair wears on somewhere offstage. During that time, most of the characters come and go. Only Byron and the audience remain rooted in the squat, which, we learn in the first five minutes, is set to be torn down, and Byron evicted. That’s the point: He is a man holding onto what, in some sense, he should have already lost.
Pescherine is an outstanding John Byron, capturing the charisma of the character himself. Byron is a man with few boundaries, and Pescherine devotes himself to this fully. In the first five minutes alone, he has mooned the audience; he has also chugged a glass filled with milk, raw egg and “whiskey” (apple juice, Huffman said). Most impressive is how he maintains Byron’s energy throughout the entire three hours.
That goes for every member of Byron’s troupe of misfits, of which there are too many to name here. There aren’t many minor characters in this script; each is fully developed. These actors play each role to its full potential, so none blend together.
Huffman decided to direct this play last fall in part because of its large cast. In his final semester at Kenyon, he wanted to produce an ambitious show with the people he had worked with throughout his time at Kenyon. He stumbled upon the location by chance.
“It looks like it was accidentally built for theatre,” Huffman said. The maintenance building serves as a backstage, and a stone ledge behind the audience lets the crew light the show from above.
The production takes risks with its space; the actors smash bottles, spill drinks, light fires and smoke liberally throughout. The long scenes of debauchery that make up the majority of the play certainly run the risk of feeling gratuitous. Here, they generally do not, probably because the audience feels it knows the characters well.
But the play is far from slapstick. Interspersed with the wild scenes of partying are interludes in which characters show up from town bearing staunch reality checks. There are the lawyers (Anika Massmann ’18 and Mark Ashin ’18) who come with news of Byron’s impending eviction. There is Dawn (Catherine Collison ’18), the mother of his child, and Troy (Tristan Biber ’17), the father of a missing teenage girl, both of whom have outgrown their mischief-making days and urge Byron to do the same. It is through these more sober characters that the audience realizes how far from the truth Byron’s message has strayed.
How to interpret the play’s title? In the second act, Lee (Ben Marx ’17), one of Byron’s followers, calls the squat in the woods “a holy land.” When it comes to the play’s central figure, Jesus imagery abounds. Byron tells his entourage that his mother was a virgin when she birthed him; later, in the play’s third act, he is gifted a fish, which was won by another character at the county fair. But as the play wears on and the sun sets over John Byron’s last day at the squat, it becomes clear how false a prophet Byron is, and what little power he really has in Flintock.
Jerusalem runs for two more nights — Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6 at 5:30 p.m.