Who Are You Calling Chicken? Fighting Fowl in Year of The Rooster
Plays set in rural Oklahoma are rarely expected to be cheerful, but Eric Dufault's Year of The Rooster compounds the hopelessness by locating its economic and existential despair within the brutal culture of competitive cock-fighting. Though usually associated with Latin countries and illegal in the United States, this blood sport—its promoters remind us—was invented by the same ancient Greeks who gave us democracy. The Greeks also gave us tragedy, a theatrical form invoked by Dufault in creating a dramatic universe where angry mortals stifle the misery expressed so eloquently by the birds who engage in gladiatorial combat.
Wait! Did you say that this play features talking chickens? Not puppets, either, but winged sluggers portrayed by human actors? Isn't that kind of—well, Sesame Street? Won't audiences regard them with the same amusement as team mascots?
"The watchword from the outset was NO FOGHORN LEGHORN!" declares Red Theater costume designer Kate Setzer Kamphausen, referencing the cartoon character. Director Carrie Lee Patterson cites the gravity of the play's premise, "The human are trying to claw their way to the top through their actions, while the birds—bred to embrace violence, with no opportunity for life-changing choices—deal with their pain in a more cerebral way."
We meet two of the avian combatants—Odysseus Rex and his opponent, Bat-Dolphin—neither of whom sport feathers or spurs, but instead wage war with daggers representing sharpened beaks. "Bat-Dolphin wears a mask and cape, but that's because his owners have surgically blinded him. These creatures are pumped full of chemicals, thrown into the arena and tossed out with the garbage when they are no longer useful," Kamphausen observes, "They are totally defenseless. If I put them in armor, it would be a lie!"
Patterson concurs, "Knife-fighting in such a small space [as The Frontier] precludes extra layers that can snag or tangle. Rather than attempting to make the actor into a rooster, we started with Odysseus and made him human."
Another fowl figuring significantly in Odysseus' spiritual awakening is Lucky Lady, a cage-raised hen summoned for breeding purposes, but who introduces her potential consort to the concept of empathy, diminishing his rage. Having never been allowed to walk on her own, this downy concubine must be carried into the barnyard, her feet so crippled as to resemble a duck's webbed appendages." "[Lucky Lady's] dress was made out of four cable-knit sweaters, with arm and leg coverings made from soft tee-shirt material. I wanted to underline her helplessness in contrast to the hard-edged ferocity of the males"
Since the plumage is based in contemporary activewear, the actors quickly acclimated to their garments as extensions of their ornithological counterparts. The hood worn by Jeff Kurysz for the role of Odysseus was carefully sized to fit closely around his head, but the weight of the attached jacket (along with a hair-clip donated at final dress rehearsal by Patterson herself) also keeps it anchored during the high-energy scenes.
Playgoers have proved uniformly responsive to the pathos of animals abused for entertainment and profit. (After one performance, an audience member was overheard confessing to "almost crying" in the play's last moments.) Patterson and Kamphausen are both aware of the irony inherent in individuals relating to the "humanity" they perceive in non-human beings. "From the first minute that we see them, they are interacting in harrowing circumstances. No one has time to laugh."
Year of the Rooster runs at The Frontier through February 6.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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