Battle cocks ruffle feathers in Impact’s rowdy Rooster

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Gil (Anthony Agresti, left) trains his prize rooster Odysseus Rex (Caleb Cabrera) to become a champion fighter in Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Below: Cabrera gives an intense, physical performance as the prize battle cock. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

For Gil Pepper, the world as he sees it is a “big fuck-you machine.” He lives with his aging mother in a crumbling Oklahoma house his late father built. He has a go-nowhere job as a McDonald’s cashier, where his name tag is misspelled “Girl.” And though his prospects are bleak, there is a sliver of light: cock fighting.

This ancient sport, Gil tells us, goes all the way back to the Greeks, so there’s nobility in allowing feathered beasts to do horrible things to each other in the ring. Gil wants to be a winner at something in life, and this just might be his ticket.

What’s so interesting about Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster, the season opener from Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, is that on one level, it’s quite a conventional tale of an endearing underdog trying desperately to win and on another it’s an extraordinary, even moving, slice into the soul of a thinking, feeling creature.

That creature happens to be an 8-month-old rooster named Odysseus Rex, played with ferocity and gargantuan heart by Caleb Cabrera. Bare-chested and covered in red paint, with his mohawk in red-covered spikes, Cabrera’s Odie, as he’s affectionately called by Gil, is challenging the sun to a fight. Pumped full of steroids and chicken McNuggets, Odie is lean of body but wired for hostility. His deadly talons are represented by a curved fighting knife clutched in Cabrera’s hand, and he slices the air with it in a way that means business.

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Odie strains to understand the world he’s in, and his childlike impressions and reactions are as eloquent as they are intense. He’s a fighter philosopher, though all he really understands is the fight. Gil (beautifully under played by Anthony Agresti) truly loves his fighter, but that’s not something Odie can really grasp, although he does evolve enough at one point to observe of himself: “I got a heart like a fuckin’ firetruck.”

You really feel for Agresti’s Gil. His mother (Terry Bamberger) wears the filthiest bathrobe imaginable and keeps asking Gil to rub her feet and bring her honey mustard sauce. She doesn’t like the rooster, and that doesn’t bode well.

Dickie Thimble (Jon Nagel), on the other hand, really likes the rooster and would pay top dollar for him. Dickie is the king of the cocks. He’s the fight promoter who has his own stable of carefully bred champion killers (shredders?), and his contempt of pathetic Gil lends credence to Dickie’s accounting of himself as an asshole. So true, but as Dickie says, “We all gots to get what we gots to get.” Nagel’s imposing presence on Erik La Due’s cramped set (efficiently turning from a dingy home to a fight ring to a McDonald’s) is strongly felt, especially when he returns for the big fight as Dickie’s champion Bat Dolphin. That centerpiece fight, staged by Dave Maier, is a violent dance between birds with “road salt and hot sauce in their veins” that makes a huge impression.

Director Logan Ellis finds a nice balance between the everyday and the existentialist, the humorous and the profound. There’s a warmth to the home and work scenes and an electric charge to the moments that let us into Odie’s inner life. A lot of that has to do with the cast, which includes the fantastic Sango Tajima as Gil’s boss, who’s full of surprises. Tajima also plays a bio-engineered fast food hen brought in to mate with Odie. It’s a love scene that comes with instructions: “Touch her in her hen parts.”

With two acts clocking in at only about 100 minutes, Year of the Rooster manages to create a sizable journey in a short amount of time. It’s a play that’s weird and not weird, violent and poetic, entertaining and deeply felt. It’s just about what you’d expect for a play that makes you fall in love with the soul of a rooster.

Eric Dufault’s Year of the Rooster continues through Oct. 12 in an Impact Theatre production at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave, Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 510-224-5744 or visit