A FELLOWSHIP IN THE RING
The Opponent is a play about the gritty world of small time boxing. Brett Neveu’s world premiere two-hander at A Red Orchid Theatre explores the relationship between Tremont (aka Tre), a white, middle-aged, ex-boxer who operates a gym in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Donell, a young black fighter who works out in the gym (race isn’t a factor in the play).
In the first act, Donell is wrapping up his training in Tre’s gym before a big fight that night, a bout which could spring the young boxer into the big time, satisfying his yearning for luxury cars and beautiful houses. Both men banter and bicker as they run through training exercises: Donell brims with confidence, and Tre talks a good game about how successful his gym is, but it’s an illusory perspective, as the older man is a failure—barely existing on boxing’s seedy fringes—who lives on his probably exaggerated memories of a big bout he almost won in his fighting days.
Five years later in the second act, Tre still lives off his self-deception about his struggling gym. Donell drops in for a visit, but most of the younger man’s bravado is gone; he got knocked out in that big fight five years previously and has since traveled through the regional boxing circuit, picking up fights where he can and trying to support a wife and child back home in Arkansas.
Neveu’s play is solidly in the noir tradition of boxing stories—a grubby and brutal lifestyle which extracts a toll from fighters who aren’t good enough to ascend to a champion’s glamorous life. There are no surprises in The Opponent, as we know early on that Tre, claiming his gym is a beehive of activity for up-and-coming fighters, is hiding the emptiness of his life; his brash façade scarcely conceals the hollow man within, and it is clear that he has no life outside the gym. Donell’s early self-confidence marks him as a man riding for a fall, and sure enough, his pride and exuberance from the first act have collapsed into a weary and resentful acceptance that life as a boxer hasn‘t worked out for him; his dreams have withered into a bleak present and a future that promises nothing.
The matter of The Opponent is predictable, but the manner nails the viewers to their seats. Guy Van Swearingen and Kamal Angelo Bolden deliver superbly nuanced performances, not only emotionally and dramatically, but also in sheer stamina. Much of the play portrays the training routine of a boxer, difficult enough for a real-life fighter but exceptionally demanding for actors. The punching drills and footwork exercises require conditioning (as well as technique) which suggest that both performers must have spent considerable time in a real gym to make themselves fit for the physical demands of their roles.
The first act belongs to Bolden, who is the spitting image of a buff and muscular fighter; his certainty of success marks him as a man riding for a fall, but he remains likable. The skills he demonstrates during his workout suggest that Donell actually is the real deal and not a semi-tragic figure. Tre, meanwhile, talks his good game but the man remains a transparent and pathetic failure. In the last act, Tre and Donell slowly pick up their relationship where it left off, but it is Tre who gains dramatic weight as his backstory comes to light; he tries to reach out to a deflated Donell, but hard words have been exchanged, leading up to an impromptu boxing match between the two that leaves both men exposed in their failed lives.
This kind of play cries out for an explosive finish and Neveu provides one in the improbable fight between Tre and Donell. It’s exciting to watch, but I had difficulty accepting that a middle-aged man could stay in the ring with a professional boxer maybe 20 years his junior, even if the boxer was on the skids. Still, as a dramatic moment the short bout was the highlight of the play.
Karen Kessler’s directing melded the dialogue and the action sequences beautifully, aided by Mike Durst’s lights and Joe Court’s sound, but I missed some of the shadings of the dialogue because both actors spoke in the thickest of Southern accents while jabbing and jostling about Joey Wade’s boxing ring set (Wade turned the entire theater into an authentically dilapidated gym). Perhaps dialect coach Kate Devore did her job so well that, especially in the first act, there was difficulty discerning the dialogue, even as the actors are a few feet away from the audience.
In Myron Elliott’s grubby costumes, the actors perfectly execute John Tovar’s fight direction and Al Ortiz’ boxing consultation, both of which combine to choreograph both the bout and the boxing drills with authenticity and precision. For those who are interested in boxing behind the scenes, The Opponent provides a vivid glimpse of the grinding training regimen that every fighter must endure. The terrific performances, utilizing Neveu’s deceptively simple script, make the play close to a clean knockout.
photos by Michael Brosilow
A Red Orchid Theatre
scheduled to end on December 2, 2012 EXTENDED through December 15, 2012
for tickets, call 312 943 8722 or visit http://www.aredorchidtheatre.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com