In “Jerusalem,” the way British playwright Jez Butterworth explores the economic, environmental and even spiritual issues surrounding land development is so richly theatrical that the play’s almost three-and-a-half-hour running time (including two intermissions) feels exactly right.
In its West Coast premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, “Jerusalem” — which deftly encompasses comedy and violence, the sacred and the profane, the contemporary and the mythic — casts a magical spell.
Charismatic Johnny “Rooster” Byron (an enthralling, complex portrayal by Brian Dykstra), a drug dealer and longtime squatter in a forest in Wiltshire County, southwest England — not far from the mysterious Stonehenge — knows everybody, and everybody knows him.
It is St. George’s Day, the day of the annual spring festival. Everybody is going.
Swarming around Rooster are local teenagers eager to snort his cocaine, drink his whiskey, party hearty and listen, wide-eyed, to his outrageous stories of past exploits.
Also on hand are his mate, Ginger (Ian Scott McGregor), the older and mildly disoriented Professor (Richard Louis James) and the good-natured local pub owner (Christopher Reber), costumed in an absurd outfit for the fair (costume design by Tatjana Genser).
Among the other characters is a scarily enraged father (Joe Estlack) who’s certain that Rooster knows the whereabouts of his missing daughter, Phaedra.
It is the wispy, sweet-voiced Phaedra (Julia Belanoff), tricked out as a fairy for the fair, who opens the play, singing the wistful “Jerusalem,” set to the poem by William Blake (“And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountain green …”). It’s a striking beginning, presaging the play’s astonishing tonal shifts and core subject matter.
Rooster is about to be evicted. The county is clearing the land to build housing developments. But he refuses to leave, and it is his efforts — in ways that include the conjuring of ancient primeval spirits that once dwelled in the English countryside — and the nuances of the interactions among the characters that drive the action.
Under Bill English’s fine-tuned direction, the large cast delivers detailed, multidimensional portrayals and moves gracefully upon English’s impressive set: a trashed campsite dominated by Rooster’s trailer and surrounded by trees and stone walls.
Among the many pleasures of “Jerusalem” are the tall tales Rooster tells — of being born with 32 teeth and a black cloak, of meeting, by chance, the 90-foot giant who built Stonehenge and more.
Butterworth’s text, both lyrical and gritty, is beautifully realized in this sterling production.
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., second floor, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. some Sundays; closes March 8
Tickets: $30 to $100