Broadway auds already know, thanks to “La Bete” and “Boeing-Boeing,” that Mark Rylance is an amazing actor. But by the conclusion of “Jerusalem,” Brit thesp has us convinced that he’s some ancient god of misrule, an ancestral Pan playing his pipes for an insipid age that has forgotten all the joys of paganism. In Jez Butterworth’s rustic comedy about a good-time dope dealer holding out against the forces of gentrification overtaking the English countryside, Rylance looks likely to attract the same heaps of praise he scored in the original London production of the play.
Rylance’s deliciously subversive performance triggers both barrels of Butterworth’s funny if disconcerting play — the accessible story about the wild man who lives in the woods and attracts all the “outcasts,” “undesirables,” and rebellious teens in the village to his drunken parties, as well as the mythic subtext about old nature gods who don’t take kindly to being uprooted from their sacred grounds.
Rylance is a strongly physical actor (he credits his chiropractor in the program bio), and his Johnny “Rooster” Byron looks like a once-noble animal gone to seed after too many years in the circus. Strutting and staggering around in the garish shirts and gypsy jewelry designed by Ultz (also responsible for the enchanted Arcadian woods where Rooster has pitched his trailer camp), Rylance gives beaucoup charisma to the earthy party animal and braggart raconteur whose ratty kingdom is about to be uprooted for a fancy housing development.
Although it’s hard to look anywhere else when Rylance is on stage, which is all the time, Mackenzie Crook manages to turn heads with his droll perf as Ginger, the faithful hanger-on who missed last night’s bacchanal and may be too strung-out for today’s festivities, the St. George’s Day fete that is an annual rite of spring.
Under Ian Rickson’s smooth helming, other colorful visitors surface from the heavy human traffic at Rooster’s camp, many of them from the original Royal Court production. Danny Kirrane has a sobering turn as Davey, whose job at a slaughterhouse goes a long way to explain why he parties so hard on weekends. Non-Brit John Gallagher, Jr. (“American Idiot”) lends his sensitivity to Lee, a born-and-bred country boy about to strike out for the wilds of Australia. And Geraldine Hughes, welcome in anything, has her moment as Rooster’s wrung-out ex-wife, Dawn.
The rumbling echoes of ancient times that resonate throughout the play are sounded by two Shakespearean fool characters: Wesley (Max Baker), the asinine pub owner whose clumsy efforts to play a Morris Dancer is Butterworth’s sly travesty of those sinister, possibly savage figures of folk legend, and the Professor (Alan David), whose drunken allusions “to the blossom and the May-Come, St. George, and all the Lost Gods of England!” actually contain rich information about the pagan gods and primitive fertility rites that haunt this play.
But it’s Rooster himself who holds the key to these lost times. This old reprobate may be barred from every pub in the village, but there’s ancient authority in his claim of having lived in these woods “since before all you bent busybody bastards were born.” And you really don’t want to look too deeply into his black, satanic eyes, because “written there is old words that will shake you — shake you down.”