Set the scene: Red Theater Chicago’s mission is to be “dangerous and free” through producing works that ask dangerous questions and a funding model that solicits supporters to purchase theater tickets for those who may not be able to afford it. For Year of the Rooster, director Carrie Lee Patterson and her production team (including scenic designer Greg Culley) have created a realistically dingy backyard cockfighting ring accentuated by a pre-show soundtrack that gives us an evocative (if unsettling) blend of laid-back Southern Rock, pre-bout announcements and barnyard squalls.
What’s it all about: This plucky, salty comic drama set in the world of cockfighting is by acclaimed young New York playwright Evan Dufault. Sad sack McDonald’s cashier by day, gifted bird trainer by night, Gil Pepper (Gage Wallace) has big plans for his prized new fighting cock, Odysseus (an amazing Jeff Kurysz). In the meantime, Gil is pecked at relentlessly by his mother, Lou (Barbara Button), supervisor at work, Philipa (a dynamic Emma Ladji), and most critically, the heavy of the play, Dickie Thimble (Daniel Dauphin). Dickie, who runs this Oklahoma cockfighting ring, pushes Gil to a wager with his prized Odysseus that he can’t afford to lose.
Stand-out performance: The inspiration of Year of the Rooster is in casting humans as the roosters, and as the cocky, young Odysseus, Jeff Kurysz perfectly embodies a fascinating role. Imagine being privy to the inner thoughts of a fighting bird. Pumped full of steroids and submitted to horrific training routines, you’re full of rage and want to slaughter everything you see (“I could kill a cow, if I put my mind to it!”). You hate the sun because it wakes you up every morning, and you’re always confused when it instantly goes dark (i.e., when your owner puts your blinders on). We see the aching vulnerability and fear in Kurysz’s large brown eyes as he struggles to make sense of his strange world, while we also fear his rage – particularly when he’s swiping the air with his switchblade. Using a minimalist costume design (essentially a black hoodie), we absolutely believe Kurysz is a rooster as he bobs around the stage – and especially in the hilarious way he sprays out pellets while eating his Chicken McNuggets™.
Also, check out: Rooster’s centerpiece is the cockfight between Kurysz’s Odysseus and a grizzled champion named Bat-Dolphin (also played by Dauphin). Even more thrilling than Will Bennett’s fierce fowl-on-fowl fight choreography, is the realization that Odysseus finally has someone he can talk with. Their battle is as much about words as anything physical. Bat-Dolphin attempts to get in the head of young Odysseus by using his youth, fear and aggression against him. Dauphin is perfect here as the crafty warrior sagely noticing that his opponent has “dogs running around in your brain.”
More of this, please: Aside from its classic Greek drama references which lend Rooster a bit more mythic weight, Playwright Dufault has an obvious love of language and gives most of his best lines to its antagonist, Dickie. In addition to some verbose and entertaining introductions Thimble makes to each of the matches, Dufault adroitly pairs the profane with the poetic to give us a memorable character. Sealing the deal with Gil for their upcoming match, Dickie says “Honor is the meat in my goddamn sandwich.” What’s left unsaid is what happens when someone besmirches his goddamn sandwich meat.
However: At times, Dufault struggles with this poetic dialogue – especially when it comes out of the mouth of his dumpy anti-hero, Gil. One clanker: “I’ve got a heart like a fire truck” Gil declares at one point to his supervisor, Philipa, as part of an abrupt love story that seems to only exist to pad the main conflict. Overall, when it’s not focused on the fighting birds (and in one brief, fascinating scene, a factory farm-raised hen), Year of the Rooster is a grim piece of work with a shy, awkward protagonist who only comes to life through this vicious sport. While cock fighting is undoubtedly woven in the very fabric of our nation’s history and it’s not difficult to trace this bloodthirst to other modern sporting leagues such as NASCAR and the NFL, it’s not a pleasant world to visit. Like slavery, cockfighting is another ancient immoral institution that still endures if only in the shadows. Shining a light on this barbaric sport, however, doesn’t necessarily illuminate anything new about the human condition. As a fresh look at this sport from the animal’s perspective, however, and showcase for Jeff Kurysz’s transcendent performance, Year of the Rooster is well worth seeing.
Do this first: Indie Café is a great nearby choice for solid sushi and Thai in a loungey, modern space. There’s also a solid BYOB Korean chicken spot nearby, but I wouldn’t dare suggest it considering the circumstances.
Do this after: Post-show drinks at Moody’s Pub, a cozy neighborhood favorite that has changed very little since it opened in 1959.
Running Time: 150 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)
At The Frontier, 1106 W Thorndale Ave
Playwright: Eric Dufault
Director: Carrie Lee Patterson
Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Thru February 6
Buy/Request Tickets at Red Theater’s site.
Photo by: Austin D. Oie