Year of the Rooster, now crowing its head off at Stray Cat Theatre, serves up a compelling theatrical medley of black comedy, tough characters, and pretty pathos. Intelligently handled by young playwright Eric Dufault, this angst-drenched story is presented by a quartet of characters who demonstrate what happens when pain and longing spin out of control, and is nudged along by a talking bird who, as played by Austin Kiehle, is some kind of revelation.
There are several shattering moments and grown-up revelations, but Dufault doesn't make his play into either a catechism lesson on public morality or a sermon against cruelty to animals. He is, it eventually becomes clear, exploring the damage done to boys with lousy fathers. The director is Michael Peck, who nurtures this rough-and-tumble tale, turning it into a love story told by people most of us wouldn't like to know.
The language of the play is natural and convincing and captures brilliantly the lingo of down-and-out dreamers. It's a language thrust at us with top-notch technical designs: Eric Beeck's feather-strewn set; Ellen Bone's appropriately harsh lighting; Pete Bish's split-second sound design.
Staged as a high-energy comedy, Year of the Rooster soon proves itself to be a drama with neatly layered characters and a tightly conceived plot. It also presents the seedy side of cockfighting as it (likely) really is, with sly sneaks at the cruelty to the birds it defiles and special emphasis on the snaky folk that underground sporting tends to draw. Particularly Gil, a beaten-down punk with an eye patch and serious daddy issues that always turn his careful wealth-and-fame scheming on its head. He knows that cockfighting will bust him out of his crummy life and has been training a prize pullet, the son of a legendary gamecock. When the bird wins a brawl staged by black-hearted cockfight promoter Dickie Thimble, everything does change -- for awhile.
The neatly clipped narrative is sustained by moving, complex performances. May, excellent as ever, makes a sad sack hero with a lowdown life into a lovable Everyman. Katie McFadzen brings her usual insight into the strengths and frailties of her character, in this case a sickly, possibly dying old woman who turns up in a different wig in each scene. Osiris Cuen gives a sharp performance as a streetwise smartass who plans to take over McDonald's and use her riches to seduce the guy who plays Mowgli at Disney World. But her brief scene as an over-stuffed, corn-fed hen, crammed into Danny Chihuahua's hilarious chicken fat suit, provides what might be the play's brightest moment. Squatting over an invisible nest, she conveys, with just her eyes and her drowsy disposition, the finest fowl a local stage may have ever seen.
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Next to young Mr. Kiehle, that is. Last seen as a wholesome, chipper Mormon missionary in Stray Cat's The Whale, he proves an unusually wide range by playing a maniacal rooster, determined to murder the sun -- apparently his true enemy -- and everything under it. Furious and pumped up on a combo of steroids and Chicken McNuggets, he is a captivating capon, strutting jerkily, twitching and crowing violent diatribes you won't want to miss.
Year of the Rooster continues through December 21 at 132 E. 6th St. in Tempe. Call 480-227-1766 or visit www.straycattheatre.org.