Virtually all of our leading contemporary repertory theaters now include non-traditional experimental techniques in staging not only original new work but also – even especially – to perform and reconsider revivals of historic classics. Canada’s great Stratford Festival now regularly gives us Shakespeare revivals with actors playing characters of the opposite sex, six or seven actors performing plays written to have a cast of more than 30 characters, and realistic people and animals played by puppets. Understandably, their audiences are sharply divided in response.
Stratford’s recent very popular and admired version of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors not only presented the required characters of the two sets of twin-brother masters and servants who confuse everyone they meet about which twin brother is which, but also cast women as male twins and men as women in most of the main roles. The multiple mix-ups got much amused approval; but I thought them to be just wrong and not confusing enough to have fooled Helen Keller. But I have to admit that my local theater is currently turning abstraction into a knockout punch.
Geva Theater Center’s simple but stunning production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale is not only a modern, evocative play, based loosely on the career of the world’s first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. It is about a boxing match that virtually symbolizes the sport’s historic refutation of racist stereotypes. And it also evokes the art and contradictions of the sport that ultimately triumph over its vulgarity, venality, and vice.
Working closely with Movement Coordinator Rocio Mendez, Geva Theatre Center’s associate artistic director and director of engagement has developed a kind of non-balletic dance technique to illustrate the physical contact, precise effort, and emotional expression of the boxers’ training and actual fight. The sound and rhythm of the boxing is primarily conveyed by staccato stomps on the floor. But the actors are almost always also dancers in their portrayals.
Jamal James has the stature for Jay, the leading man/Jack Johnson role and gives a powerful but poetic sense of inner conflict to Jay’s urgent need to win. DazMann Still is appealing as the insecure young boxer who is his initial opponent in the play. Outstanding among the others is Lisa Tharps, who comes into leading focus late in the play as Jay’s older sister afraid of harm when her black family challenges a white leader [the current boxing champ].
Settings, costumes, and potent visual effects are also slightly stylized and always richly suggest struggle without using violent detail. “Separate but equal” was a ruse, not a reality, in the lives of these black characters. And without the boxers ever touching one another, the climactic fight and its glaring aftermath (virtual silence and blinding light that makes us gasp and blink) do not leave us unexcited or finally untouched. In this case artfulness equals power.