Friday, February 14, 2014


WHAT TO SAY ABOUT Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalemseen last night at San Francisco Playhouse? We sat center, first row mezzanine, through the long first act; then moved back a few rows — there were only two or three other playgoers up there, though the orchestra seemed well populated — for the remaining two (long) acts. I mention this because Jerusalem is, if nothing else, talky, and depends on being understood, and between the acoustical properties of the house, and the thick accents put on with varying degrees of consistency and success, and the extent of British slang, I wasn't always able to follow just what the hell was going on.

We'll have to read the play, my companion said later. I'm not so sure I'll bother. The play is laudable in its intent: to transfer the traditional English reverence for the powers of Nature to our own time, when paganism is no longer taken seriously except as it typifies antisocial behavior. Much of the time the play reminded me of Michael Tippet's opera Midsummer Marriage, of all things, and I even wondered if the playwright might perhaps be related to another British composer, George Butterworth (1885-1916), remembered primarily for his pastoral setting of Houseman's A Shropshire Lad. The pastoral tradition runs through the English sensibility from Chaucer on, and more than once this Butterworth, in Jerusalem, seems to be glancing sidelong toward As You Like It. But it is very much of our time, bringing town council enforcers out to the woods to lean on "Rooster" Byron, a middle-aged motorcycle acrobat hanging out in a house-trailer squatting on Council land in the woods.

Here he plays host to underaged girls, drifters, and assorted social misfits who hang about for free booze and pills, entertaining  them with unlikely stories, linking himself to the English mythical and Romantic tradition. "What's an English forest for?", he asks pointedly, when it's pointed out he's harboring fugitive teen-agers.

As is so often the case, the relentless back and forth of dialogue and the constant narrative imperative of the play distract me from the playwright's real purpose, which is verifying the continued vigor and relevance of this pagan interplay of Man and Nature within the political and commercial corruptions of today's society. Apart from the vocal production, this performance has a lot to be said for it: a persuasive set, enterprising costuming, good blocking, detailed though not fussy stage direction. 

The cast seemed to me to wrestle with Butterworth's demands, which are considerable. Brian Dykstra has a particularly difficult role in Rooster Byron, and manages it persuasively if not commandingly. The rest of the large cast fit in well; I was particularly taken with Richard Louis James as the Professor, Ian Scott McGregor as Ginger,, and Courtney Walsh as one of the enforcers, a small but telling part.

Jez Butterworth: Jerusalem. San Francisco Playhouse , through March 8

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