There’s a tender moment in the overly fowl-mouthed drama Year of the Rooster at Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe by playwright Eric Dufault and it comes not from the human characters but from the poultry.
Odysseus Rex (Austin Kiehle) is a rooster; an angry, lethally dangerous rooster bred specifically to kill in a cockfighting arena. Odie, as he’s called with affection by his trainer Gil (Ron May), is filled with a seething rage required to make him the champion killer he’s created to be. But for one fleeting moment, that rage is dulled and the hatred calmed when Gil brings home a hen called Lucky Lady (Osiris Cuen), a genetically engineered chicken from McDonalds so unusually fat she can hardly stand, and introduces her to Odie. “You’re like a basketball made of meat,” Odie declares when he first meets Lucky Lady. It’s a surprisingly tender moment that for a brief second actually charms, but, like all the characters in this sharply observed drama, happiness and anything remotely resembling victory is soon snatched away. Trainer Gil misreads the actions between the pathetic hen and his killer rooster and removes her.
Year of the Rooster is the story of Gil Pepper, a McDonalds employee who lives with his mother, Lou (Katie McFadzen) and is belittled by everyone. Gil sports an eye patch, the result of a previous assault from a killer rooster, and even though this permanent disfigurement acts as a kind of visual reminder of the man’s constant loser status, Gil sees things from a different perspective. Raising Odie and putting him in that ring is Gil’s one chance to be the winner he believes he deserves to be, and no one, not Dickie Thimble (Louis Farber) the town’s boorish cockfighting entrepreneur, not Philipa (Osiris Cuen) Gil’s bullying teenage co-worker at McDonalds who will soon be his manager, nor his mother is going to stop him.
The strength of the play is in the writing. Dufault’s script has no padding. The well-observed scenes are short, crisp, and run at a breakneck speed, one after the other, propelling the play forward like an ever speeding train that instinct tells you is heading towards disaster, unable to slow even if it wanted to. So rich is the quality of the work you sense that playwright Dufault probably wrote a much lengthier piece then cut it down to size with the same lethal precision that Odie uses when slicing his opponent in the cockfighting ring. Running at a tight 105 minutes, including intermission, Year of the Rooster is as lean and mean as Odie himself.
This time, Stray Cat’s artistic director Ron May takes center stage as Gil and it’s a testament to May’s ever developing talent that you actually find yourself temporarily rooting for Gil to succeed on his chosen path, even though the route the character is taking is a reprehensible one and his world view is obstructed not by an eye-patch but by a limited imagination and self-inflicted disasters. As director, producer and actor, May continually surprises and has to be one of the most interesting players in the valley’s vast professional arena. He’s the polar opposite to Gil; theatrically he never takes the easy route.
But Year of the Rooster is no one-man show. Director Michael Peck has fleshed great support from a small cast of players, each of whom bring that extra special quality of depth required to make people you would never want to know but may have had the misfortune of meeting from time to time seem all too real. Osiris Cuen’s contemptible teenage McDonalds manager, Philipa, whose life’s ambition is to go to Disney World and have mind-blowing sex with Mowgli from The Jungle Book, is a bigger loser than Gil. She may be a manager of a fast-food restaurant but her equally limited outlook plus her contemptuous taunting of Gil renders her permanently perched on a lower rung of life’s ladder of success. She doesn’t deserve to be any higher.
The same can be said for Louis Farber’s outstanding portrayal of the loathsome Dickie Thimble. When Thimble announces into an echoing mic at the beginning of another cockfight for everyone to… “Take a good look at those birds over there before they tear each other apart,” you recoil in horror at the glee this despicable character is enjoying as he plays to the gladiatorial like roars of approval from an unseen cockfighting audience.
Katie McFadzen is Lou, Gil’s housebound mother in the early stages of dementia who can’t help the feeling that one day one of Gil’s killer roosters is going to turn and kill her. With recent productions at Childsplay plus an exceptional performance in Actors Theatre’s recent production of Good People under her belt, like her co-star, Katie continues to be among the most exciting talents to watch in the valley.
Then there’s Odie, the perpetually enraged cock whose thoughts we hear as the creature questions its existence and continually wonders not only where he is and who he is but why he feels such inner fury all the time. Incorporating elements of mime to his movement but never with the broadness of comical pantomime, Austin Kiehle plays Odie as a kind of leather-clad punk rocker with claws sporting a feather Mohawk. Like your feelings towards Gil, there’s a certain level of sympathy you feel towards Odie. He may be a killer but he’s just as trapped and as helpless in a life that seems to have no meaning.
Eric Beek’s scenic design makes grand use of Stray Cat’s stage with a McDonalds drive-thru stage left, Gil and Lou’s living room stage right and the cockfighting arena in the middle, plus John Tang’s fight choreography between Odie and an equally killer rooster named Bat-Dolphin (Louis Farber) is genuinely exciting. It’s like watching knife-wielding ninjas. Among the many conflicting sensations you’ll experience throughout Year of the Rooster, the cock fight should have you living through the one sensation you truly never expected; you’ll be on the edge of your seat.
Photos courtesy of John Groseclose
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