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Cockfighters

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Like the illegal sport from which playwright Johnna Adams gets her play's name, Cockfighters is bloody, gritty, and uncompromising, almost from its first moment to its last. That it's gripping - even if it stops short of thrilling - is beside the point; Cockfighters achieves everything it needs to and then some.

Adams draws some fascinating correlations between the sport itself (which is never shown onstage, but is integral to the action) and the attitudes of her characters. They do participate in it, with the play's central family raising gaming cocks and fighting them after hours, but their relationships with each other, and those outside their family, frequently prove to be as vicious.

Adams demonstrates this, and defines her characters, through three separate though related stories, surrounding the death of Shirley Fowler (Eevin Hartsough). Two of the stories occur simultaneously on one night well after the murder while the other is a flashback to the fateful night. All three are seamlessly intertwined, staged by director Sarah Gurfield as almost cinematic cuts that highlight key moments and push the story along with barely a break in the action (or the tension) for 90 minutes.

So we see, for example, Shirley's mentally underdeveloped brother Clarence (Scot Carlisle, in a frequently riveting portrayal) slip back and forth between the confrontation between his father Dwight (Bill Fairbairn) and the local sheriff Hump (David Sitler) and the night of his sister's murder. Meanwhile, Shirley's brother CD (Patrick Melville) and girlfriend Tammy (Dawn Sobeczak) confront the most likely culprit, Shirley's boyfriend Rye (Raphael Fetta) with little intention of letting him get away alive.

But anger, loss, and revenge, while key issues in Cockfighters, are only where it begins. Adams is unafraid to tackle these issues baldly and allow them to develop into equally effective object lessons about forgiveness and redemption, though she warns that no bad deed goes unpunished. Adams has covered all the bases, and constructed a tight, dramatic script that really works.

The only significant flaw is that the play's specific situations occasionally lack the innate creativity of their construction and the almost other-worldly nature of the world Adams has created. WT McRae's rustic set is perfectly demonstrative of Adams's style: The cockfighting pit is central and almost demonic, and he has created a pickup truck from boxes and a barrel. The tone is present in all the show's physical elements and in its dialogue, yet it doesn't inform the specific events as well as it might. The otherwise strong writing, however, generally prevents this from being much of an issue.

The real standouts of the cast are Carlisle, who brings a clueless sensitivity and lightheartedness to the simpleminded Clarence, and Hartsough, who displays great warmth beneath her surface of obligation and rebellion. Still, each member of the cast is highly suited to his or her role: The hatred between Dwight and Hump is well developed and palpable, mirrored well by the younger actors portraying CD and Rye in a similar conflict. There's no weak link here; each actor is devoted to his or her character and creates the sense that, at any moment, the situation could reach critical mass. That's half the fun of Cockfighters.

The other half comes from seeing how the intelligent young Adams weaves her tale with a facility that surpasses that of many older playwrights. As expertly interpreted by Gurfield and the fine cast, Cockfighters is more than just a good play. It also displays the great future promise of the Oberon Theatre Ensemble and Adams herself, as well as demonstrating that a significant portion of it has already been realized quite dynamically.

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Oberon Theatre Ensemble
Cockfighters
Through February 23
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Jan Hus Playhouse, 351 East 74th Street at 1st Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 560-2241