Crow of triumph, cry of despair

"Year of the Rooster" at CoHo struts across an aggressive and violent stage. It's winner take all. And it's desperately funny.

The first clue might come in the program credits, where Kristen Mun, who ordinarily would be listed as fight coordinator, is instead credited as “violence director.”

Somehow you get the feeling this show might be amping things up.

That intuition pays off within scant seconds at the top of the show, when Sam Dinkowitz struts cockily onstage, chest puffed, muscles bulging, head twitching, hurling a fusillade of profanity upward, toward the sun, his mortal enemy, the bane of his life, the creature whose very rising in the morning is an affront to his nature, the shining devil he has sworn to kill.

Rolland Walsh (and eggs) in “Year of the Rooster.” Photo: Owen Carey

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there, a place of unleashed testosterone, of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, win or drop dead. In a universe where everything’s brutally, comically exaggerated, nobody’s more over the top than Odysseus Rex, the raging killer Dinkowitz plays. Odysseus Rex is a rooster. More than a rooster, he’s a fighting cock. More than a fighting cock, he’s a champion. And this is his story.

Olivia Dufault’s Year of the Rooster, which opened Friday night in a rip-roaring production at CoHo Theater, is our story, too; or at least the implication’s there: We’re all stuck in a world of naked aggression, battling the pile to climb on top, to win the prize, to beat old Darwin at his own game. Choose your weapon, make your play. Show no mercy. No snowflakes allowed: This is a damned blizzard. In a Trumpian world where belligerence and divisiveness are strategic weapons in a massive and potentially lethal power grab that considers any sort of compromise or collaboration a fatal weakness, the metaphor seems apt. On the other hand it’s also open, the sort of metaphor where you can fill in your own blanks.

Year of the Rooster is frightfully funny, although always lurking below the laughter is the uneasy sense that we’re laughing at an end game, looking at lives that have already been checkmated except the players haven’t realized it yet and keep on feverishly moving the pieces as if victory were just around the corner. The cast is impeccably wild, as is the production itself (special props to sound designer Elizabeth Young), and director Alexandra Kuechler-Caffall drives the thing like a crafty NASCAR veteran, pushing pedal to the metal and taking the corners at something barely below breakneck speed.

Dinkowitz is the rustling rage at the center of the action, but every character echoes his fierce determination to one degree or another. He belongs to Gil Pepper (Rolland Walsh), a mild-seeming McDonald’s worker in a scrubby Oklahoma town who lives with his mother, Lou (Paige Johnson Jones), who is wheedling and manipulative and glued for companionship to a near-dead dog and at first seems just passively aggressive, until she turns aggressively aggressive, though lord knows she has some justification for her transformation. Ahna Dunn-Wilder is abrasively charming and manipulative as Philipa, Gil’s brash 19-year-old coworker at McDonald’s who soon becomes his boss and declares, without apparent irony, that one of these days she’s going to own the whole chain, and you get the sense she might at that. (She also, in the closest thing Year of the Rooster has to a tender scene, plays an overstuffed hen from a McDonald’s factory farm in a fumbling mating ritual: It’s that sort of play). And Michael O’Connell sashays through the proceedings as Dickie Thimble, a cutthroat-cornpone character who seems country cousin to a flimflam country preacher, except he professes to no religion other than the glory of the cockfight, and seems to own about three-quarters of the town.

There are about a million ways this play could go wrong in production, and yet it doesn’t. Two things, I think, are key: the moments of genuine confusion and soul-searching that Dinkowitz uses to betray the pure aggression his rooster otherwise projects, making him in a way the most human of the play’s characters; and Walsh’s air of innocence, his little-boy-loser charm, which allies him with the audience. Those two things muddle a harsh play with human (or animal) complexity.

It’s a little disconcerting, sitting in CoHo’s tight little theater space, to find yourself rooting for Gil to succeed in his quest to train and manage the best killer cock in the territory, to succeed in one of the most brutal and vile so-called sports in existence. He’s the underdog, as it were, and don’t we always root for underdogs? Of course, we also know this isn’t a real cockfight, and so we can distance ourselves from its real-life implications. Year of the Rooster fits intriguingly with the uproar over the Guggenheim New York’s big new exhibition Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World, in which a video of two pit bulls tethered to treadmills and repeatedly lunging at each other, salivating to destroy each other but being held back so they can never follow through, was belatedly pulled from the show after a public outcry over animal cruelty being portrayed as art.

The truly scary thing about Year of the Rooster is that something as patently antisocial and downright cruel as cockfighting seems so matter-of-fact, just another way of doing business in a hardscrabble world. There’s a matter of class consciousness here, too. It might seem easy to dismiss these economically and educationally sketchy rural characters as simple Trump-supporter stand-ins, but that ignores the complexity of both Trump’s support base, which includes highly educated and well-to-do followers, and struggling rural and Midland America, which include far more diversity than the stereotypes suggest. And what then, speaking of naked aggression, to make of the urbane Harvey Weinsteins of the world?

In the end, I’m not sure Year of the Rooster takes us anywhere. It seems stunted, stuck in its prime proposition that life is one big act of aggression and nobody gets out alive. It’s an actors’ play, the sort of show you hit to watch good actors pull out all the stops. And, my, does this cast pull ’em out. They act the thing within an inch of its actorly life.

Oh, yes. And about that “violence director”? Fighting cocks, as you may know, peck viciously with their bills and slash lethally with their claws. Yes, the fights here are choreographed, and you know nobody’s really getting hurt. But those knives standing in for rooster claws look alarmingly real, and they swing with lethal-looking force. Either they are real knives, and the choreography’s truly cutting-edge, or they’re fake knives, and the props master is an uncredited star of the show.

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Year of the Rooster continues through Nov. 18 at CoHo Theater, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St. Ticket and schedule information here.

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