DALLAS There’s nothing wrong with being cocky if you have the goods to back it up, as Upstart Productions does with Eric Dufault’s 2013 play Year of the Rooster.
Not only does the play open a new season for an outfit that has been oft-acclaimed in its six-year history, but it launches one of the most ambitious performing arts initiatives North Texas has seen: the Elevator Project.
This program, concocted by AT&T Performing Arts Center, allows six small performing arts groups to use the studio spaces in the Wyly Theatre in the 2014-15 season, on a subscription package (the others are Cara Mía Theatre Company, Dallas Actor’s Lab, Danielle Georgiou Dance Group, African American Repertory Theater and Second Thought Theatre).
In case there was any doubt that this series would bring edgy work to the mammoth, shiny structures of the Dallas arts district, Year of the Rooster, directed by David Denson, quashes it.
It’s a play about cockfighting, which fittingly leads to bigger themes about masculinity and the human need to move on to something bigger and better, no matter how desperately.
Gil Pepper (Brian Witkowicz) is a directionless sad-sack who works at McDonald’s and gets picked on by Phillippa (Steph Garrett), a cornrowed and younger co-worker who’s advancing faster than he is. Her harangues are nothing compared to the constant dogging Gil suffers from his on-disability-but-probably-shouldn’t-be mother, Lou Pepper (Constance Gold Parry).
Poor lout, he’s also bullied by a “cocker” rival, Dickie Thimble (Gregory Hullett).
The one ace Gil has is the rooster he’s been prepping for fighting, Odysseus Rex, who’s played by Joey Folsom in a spiked-out motorcycle jacket, black jeans, leather boots and a fauxhawk. (The fantastic costumes are by Christina Cook.)
Odysseus is an angry creature who curses the sun with the punk-poetry of a Greek tragedian. It’s an easy guess that even if Gil and Odysseus win, the human probably won’t escape his current situation unscathed.
Upstart uses the Sixth Floor Studio wisely, in a thrust (almost arena) configuration, with Christopher M. Ham’s scenic design of banners touting previous cockfight champs and structures of chicken wire and scattered feathers. Adrian L. Cook’s fight choreography in the first act climax in which Odysseus fights Thimble’s rooster, Bat Dolphin (played by Hullett), is thrilling theater.
An even better chicken scene is the encounter with Odysseus and Luck Lady (Garrett), who’s been given growth hormones, probably for those nuggets that Gil and Phillippa sell on the job. Garrett, who is riotously funny as Phillippa, full of hip-hop swagger, tops it as a hen who brings out strange new feelings in Odysseus.
Folsom, jerking his neck and head with swift, short moves like a rooster, is all bravado and rage; he’s not chicken about diving into this cocky role. Gold and Hullett are better than I have ever seen them; and nobody in town pulls off schlemiel better than Witkowicz.
He’s the loveable loser who makes you want to shout out — as if at a slasher flick — “don’t go in there!” and “watch out!” But his worst villains aren’t as tangible as a lurking killer, or even the taunts from the bullies in his life. They’re much scarier.