You may think you know where Year of the Rooster is going from its first profanity-laced scene, but to dismiss it that quickly would be to underestimate Eric Dufault’s 2013 play. What seems at first to be a classic underdog story reveals itself as a messy, harsh, ultimately rewarding journey of confidence and determination.
Upstart Productions, which impressed with The Aliens last summer at the Margo Jones Theater, has found another temporary home on the sixth floor of the Wyly as the first production in the Elevator Series. And it comes in with a bang—or perhaps, more appropriately, with a howl.
A wild-eyed, rage-filled creature leaps and crouches around the stage, spewing hatred at a daily opponent that just refuses to lie down and admit defeat (that would be the sun). Rooster Odysseus Rex (“Best of Big D” winner Joey Folsom) is the embodiment of every slight and insult his sad-sack owner, Gil, has ever weathered in his depressing life. Watching Folsom is like watching a strutting, ticking time bomb: darting eyes, jutting chin, and naked fury all constantly on display.
Brian Witkowicz is the lethargic Gil, a loser trapped in a dead-end job with nothing to come home to except his parasitic mother (Constance Gold Parry) and her unending demands. His only escape is the rooster, Odie, he’s been training for cock-fighting matches.
At first it’s difficult to tell if Gil actually enjoys cock fighting, or if he just sees it as the only escape plan within his grasp. Witkowicz simmers, but doesn’t boil over until he’s matched up against Gil’s nemesis, a big-talking jerk played with redneck machismo by Gregory Hullett. Then it’s a transformative experience to watch Gil pour his hopes into a bird that doesn’t even know why he’s in this ring, let alone why a blind rooster (Hullett again) wants to soundly whoop his ass (fight choreography by Adrian L. Cook is tight and impressive). We come to see that Gil actually loves that damn bird.
From there on out, we root for Gil as he slowly gathers his courage. He stands up to his mother, quits his job at McDonald’s and asks out his manager (Steph Garrett, giving two of the most committed performances of the year as the cornrowed, trash-talking Phillipa and as a silly female chicken), and starts to walk a little taller.
Dufault makes sure Gil’s story is not so simple, and director David Denson unrelentingly assaults the audience with moments both sympathetic and repulsive. The ending feels a bit heavy handed, but Witkowicz’s commitment to this character—who suddenly seems so much more multidimensional—is mesmerizing.