Year of the Rooster

By Eric Dufault

Directed by Carrie Lee Patterson

Produced by Red Theater Chicago

Playing at the Frontier Theatre

An Auspicious Beginning with this Chicken

It’s a new year, and with it comes a new model for Red Theatre Chicago, the local branch of a boundary-breaking theatre company founded by rebellious students at the University of Nebraska. Following their collaboration with Oracle Theatre on R+J: The Vineyard, which is being revived later this month at The Den, the company has switched to the free theatre model. First to be produced by Red Theatre Chicago by itself under the new structure is the Chicago premiere of Year of the Rooster, a 2013 off-Broadway tragicomedy by Eric Dufault. The play has already been well-received in several other cities due to its examination of the bizarre affection participants in cockfighting feel for the birds they raise and send into battle. But what makes Year of the Rooster theatrical in the sense appropriate for a storefront space is that the rooster, Odysseus Rex (Jeff Kurysz), has a voice of his own.

Jeff Kurysz (Odysseus Rex) and Gage Wallace (Gil Pepper). Photos by Austin D. Oie.

Gil Pepper (Gage Wallace) has a miserable life, and he knows it. He’s worked at a McDonald’s for five years where management intentionally misspelled his name on his nametag as “Girl,” he lives with his demanding, shut-in mother and her filthy rug of a dog, and his greatest accomplishment is having learned the names of all fifty states in alphabetical order when he was in fifth grade. He’s also recently lost an eye to a rooster, but that’s his surest sign that things are about to improve for him. For through some unknown means, Gil has acquired an aggressive young bantam sired by Cassidy Coltrane, the most feared battle stag in all of Oklahoma. “Odie,” as Gil lovingly calls the creature that made a cyclops of him, is born destined for greatness. Sexy, imposing, agile, respected, and a breadwinner, this literal cock is everything Gil failed to be, but through him, may yet achieve.

Barbara Button (Lou Pepper) and Wallace (Gil)

Maddened by inoculations, a daily exercise regimen in the dryer, and a steady diet of McNuggets, Odie feels few emotions other than pride, pain, and hate. Though he eagerly anticipates his debut in the ring, Odie’s ultimate enemy is the sun, which he regards as the tyrannical creator deity and rages against each morning. Though Gil loves Odie as much as his late father, the chicken-people and the human-people have no awareness of each other as intelligent beings. Jeff Kurysz’s performance is a deft blend of humor, pathos, and combat dexterity. For though we pity Odie, the bird is not very smart, nor is he a graceful eater. (Costume designer Kate Setzer Kamphausen managed to find a look for Kurysz that is plausible for him as both a human actor and a bird. He doesn’t overdue it, but Odie’s avian mannerisms allow his angry-young-cock persona to be amusing, and therefore acceptable, instead of silly.) At one point, Gil brings him a breeding partner from a factory farm. The Lucky Lady (Emma Ladji) is hideously deformed and bitter, but her too-brief scene with Odie is the tenderest moment of uncomplicated love in the play.

Emma Ladji (Philipa) and Wallace (Gil)

The human world is harsher. Ladji also plays Gil’s nineteen-year-old manager, whose humble dreams are sufficient motivation for her to step on him on her way up, if he won’t join her. Likewise clumsily reaching out to him only to be rewarded with mutual embarrassment is Barbara Button as Gil’s mother, Lou, who is as put-upon as she is annoying. Lording over the cockfights and Cassidy Coltrane’s two remaining eggs is the smarmy Dickie Thimble (Daniel Dauphin), whose small town amusements include bullying Gil at work and at home. As his chicken-counterpart, Dauphin is even more conceited. Leading them all, Gage Wallace’s Gil is, much like Odie, repulsive, while still being an effective underdog. He sees himself as Odie’s mentor and older brother, and participating in cockfights is the one thing in his life he’s not ashamed of. Director Carrie Lee Patterson carefully balances the play’s brutal moments with its hilarious ones—this play is meant to be “fiercely comedic,” after all. As dark as its subject matter is, Year of the Rooster is quite enjoyable. As a play in which actors play chickens ought to be.

Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed January 9, 2015

For more information, see Year of the Rooster’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at the Frontier Theatre, 1106 W Thorndale Ave, Chicago. Tickets are free; to order, visit redtheatre.org. Playing Sundays at 7:00 pm, select Mondays at 7:00 or 7:30 pm, and Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm through February 6. Running time is one hour and fifty minutes, with one intermission.