Sunday, May 01, 2016

Award winning JERUSALEM misses the mark at Ensemble

If you go to see JERUSALEM, now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, don’t expect it to be about people living in the Israeli city of that name, or of the 2013 film of the same name concerning a group of messianic pilgrims abandoning their native Sweden to emigrate to Palestine.

JERUSALEM, as written by Jez Butterworth is a play about Johnny “Rooster” Byron which had its origin in the real life of Micky Laye, who lived in Pewsey, Wiltshire, England.  Laye lived in a caravan (trailer) in the woods outside of the wee village.  Rumor has it that the author met Laye while attending the town’s local carnival week-long festival and thought him interesting enough to base a three act, almost three-hour play, on his actions and the reactions of the town folks to his life style.

Just to clarify, the play’s title is based on the script’s numerous references to William Blake’s lyrics to the song “Jerusalem.”

As the play opens, it is St. George’s Day, when the local county fair takes place.  On stage, in a setting that is obviously deep in the woods, we are confronted by a rave of seemingly drunk and drugged-out people.  They turn out to be many of the teens of the area, who have found Byron’s homestead to be a welcoming place to let loose and get away from the rules of their parents and the town. 

Shortly, a duo of the town’s council officials (the ultra-serious Valerie Young and August Scarpelli) appear and tack up a notice on the caravan’s doors indicating that the place is condemned and is to be bulldozed by the town for the lack of payment of taxes and fees.

Byron is a former daredevil who is eccentric, bold, and defiant.  He is noted for his constantly getting in fights at the local bars.  So many fights, in fact, that he is on a blacklist from almost all the local establishments.

Byron is a wanted man.  His young son, Markey, (the adorable Miles Pierce) who occasionally sees his father, wants him to keep his promise and take him to the fair.  The town officials want him gone. 

The kids, his loyal hangers on, want his drugs and alcohol.  Ginger (James Rankin), who never has grown up, harbors false dreams of being a d.j., but is an unemployed plasterer.  Lee (Kyle Huff), plans to emigrate to Australia but has little money to get there.  Davey (Michael Johnson), Lee’s friend, covers up his fears with drugs and alcohol. Tanya (Leah Smith) and Pea (Becca Moseley) want to escape, but its never clear from what. 

Phaedra (Katja Yaker) appears, on occasion, as a waif wearing wings.  We find out that she is the reigning Festival queen, who is in hiding from her father in Byron’s caravan.  She appears in both acts and sings the hymn, “Jerusalem.”

Byron’s only adult acquaintances seem to be The Professor (the delightful Dana Hart) who spouts philosophical nothings while taking drugs, Wesley (David Vegh), a local pub owner, and Dawn (Brittni Shambaugh Addison), Marky’s mother, who disapproves of Byron’s life style.

JERUSALEM, which opened in London in 2009 to rave reviews, resulting in an extended run, starred Mark Rylance.  Rylance reprised the role of Byron on Broadway in 2011 and was selected as the Tony Award’s Best Actor.

The Ensemble production, under the directorship of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, does not live up to the script’s potential.  The major issue seems to center on the interpretation of Byron.  Mitch Rose lacks the character’s underlying charisma.  Instead of our feeling empathy for Byron as a charming rogue, a Pied Piper who stands against irrational rules and over-bearing authority, the character seems irresponsible, unlikeable and contrary for the sake of being obstinate.  Without that likeability factor, we have no reason to cheer for him as the underdog who, though he has weaknesses and does things which are not psychologically healthy, still makes him deserving of our empathy.  

The youth in the cast are all physically attractive and do a nice job with the English accents, but several lack the acting chops to fully develop their characterizations.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  JERUSALEM is an award winning play that gets an Ensemble production which tries hard but simply doesn’t reach the performance level the script deserves. Unfortunately, the feeling of “who cares about these people and what happens to them,” permeates.  That’s not what the author intended.

(Running time:  Act I—55 minutes, Act II—55 minutes, Act III—50 minutes)

JERUSALEM runs Thursdays through Sundays from April 29 through May 21, 2016 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to