They rarely attack from the front, they are sneaky and don't fight fair. They are focused only on winning and domination. They do not make good pets. Those words describe a run-of-the-mill aggressive rooster. But when such an animal is trained only for cockfighting, where the rule is kill or be killed, the level of violence jumps significantly.
In the tragi-comic Year of the Rooster, now at None Too Fragile theater, a mean, deliriously homicidal rooster named Odysseus Rex is owned by a dead-in-the-water looser named Gil, who works the register at McDonald's and dreams of glory in the local cockfighting pit. Unfortunately, Gill has only one eye, since "Odie" raked the other one during training sessions that included being thrown in a clothes dryer to amp up the rooster's frenzy in preparation for its showdown fight with a lethal rooster named Bat-Dolphin.
This play by Olivia Dufault would be nothing more than an ASPCA picketing site if it weren't for the fact that Odie is played by a human actor arrayed in a lush feathery headdress, collar and gloves. And Rob Grant does a masterful job of making Odie not only terrifying, with his bloodcurdling crowing and monomaniacal focus on carnage, but eventually also reflective and, yes, even loving towards an over-fed (by McDonald's), crippled chicken he is given, in the hope they breed more killers. Odie's dream of killing the biggest things possible, including the sun which torments him daily, seem almost doable in Grant's riveting performance.
Gil puts all his chips on Odie being a successful cockfighting champion while training at his mom Lou's double-wide where she sits in a Barcalounger with a limp, shaggy dog on her lap that only intermittently shows signs of being alive. She torments Gil, as does the local cockfight impresario Dickie Thimble, the owner of the second largest beef jerky factory in Oklahoma. and also, not incidentally the trainer of Bat-Dolphin. Dickie enjoys stopping by McDonald's so he can humiliate Gil by making him kiss his ring (literally) and other things (figuratively). Completing Gil's trail of woe is Phillipa, the 19-year-old McDonald's manager who lords it over Gil and mocks his manhood by intentionally misspelling his name as "Girl" on his nametag.
This could all come across as a collection of familiar Hee-Haw cliches, but under the direction of Sean Derry each actor manages to make their characters fascinating and weirdly believable. As Gil, Daniel McElhaney throws himself into the fray in creating a schlub that is actually quite lovable. His view of the future is "love and feathers," and when he's riding high thanks to the bloody exploits of Odie, he celebrates with a drunken encounter with his own restaurant's drive-thru station.
Andrew Narten adopts an amusing Cockney-ish accent as an Okie by way of London's East-End and relishes every moment of torment he can provide Gil. He also plays Bat-Dolphin in black head feathers in the climactic fight that lacks some of the physical savagery one might expect in such a colossal showdown. As Phillipa and Lou, Madelyn Voltz and Linda Ryan have some nice moments, but at times lack the specificity shown by the other cast members.
Year of the Rooster provides a wildly satisfying ride for the first 90 minutes, but it loses a lot of momentum in the homestretch of this two-act production, as playwright Dufault tries to fashion a "deeper-meaning" ending. It would all work better if such pretensions were abandoned and we were left just with the dream-story of Gil and Odie, two lost souls meant for each other.
Year of the Rooster
Through December 18 at None Too Fragile Theatre at The Coach House, 732 W. Exchange St., Akron, nonetoofragile.com, 330-962-5547.