Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rolling With The Punches

In recent weeks, the news has been filled with headlines detailing the loathsome behavior of men who rape. As victims of sexual harassment come forward to describe the methodology of such predators as Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., and Roy Moore, I find myself wondering if their attacks are not just due to learned behavior but if (especially for avowed sexual pigs like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump) there is a stronger predatory instinct at play.

For some sex addicts, the thrill of the chase is every bit as important as the actual sexual conquest. Like a carnivore teasing its prey before going in for the kill, some men are powerless to abandon a routine they've developed over years of assaulting victims they perceive as especially vulnerable. Some people like to think that orcas and great white sharks toss seals in the air in a playful attempt to stun them before chomping down on their carcasses but, as the following two videos reveal, the doomed seals are more nimble than the giant fish hunting them.

Whether watching a bitter married couple (like Edward Albee's George and Martha in 1962's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or a bloodied boxer like Sylvester Stallone's determined Rocky Balboa, viewers sometimes wonder if the only reason these people keep fighting is because they don't know how to stop. Whether they're punch drunk on blood lust or their vengeance can never really feel complete, as they age it becomes harder for them to maintain their dominance as "King of the Hill."

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As I watched a recent performance of Custom Made Theatre's production of The Lion in Winter, I couldn't help noticing how the bearish Steven Westdahl's portrayal of the 50-year-old King Henry II of England made me think of Harvey Weinstein. A classic bully who enjoyed manipulating the members of his family and court, Henry was noted for his temper as well as his unpredictability. Even though he had kept his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, imprisoned for ten years, he nevertheless enjoyed her intellect and wit even after he had lost all physical interest in her body.

James Goldman's 1966 play is set during Christmas of 1183, when Eleanor has been allowed to visit Henry at his castle in Chinon for the holiday. Equally disappointed in their three surviving sons, Henry and Eleanor are painfully aware that they have failed to produce an heir worthy of assuming Henry's throne following his death. Henry wants Eleanor to divorce him so he can marry his mistress (who was betrothed to him at the age of eight) but Eleanor is loathe to give her husband such satisfaction.

Steven Westdahl (Henry II) and Cat Luedtke (Eleanor of Aquitaine)
in a scene from The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Meanwhile, the couple's sons are starting to bear an acute resemblance to a contemporary American trio of doofuses. The clumsy ingrates who hunger for their father's approval (and can be easily manipulated by their scheming mother) are:
  • Richard Lionheart (Elliot Lieberman), a strong, masculine figure with notable military talent who may, at one time, have counted Phillip II, King of France as his lover. Often regarded as Eleanor's favorite son, Richard (like Donald Trump, Jr.) stands to inherit the most from his father.
  • Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany (Kalon Thibodeaux), is probably the smartest of Henry's sons. Alas, Geoffrey developed a reputation for treachery after being involved in numerous rebellions against his father and was often thought to have conspired with Philip II. Think of him as the Jared Kushner of his day.
  • John (Luke Brady). Although nearly a foot shorter than his brother, Richard (who he eventually succeeded on the English throne) at the time in which Goldman's play takes place, John is basically the Eric Trump of the Middle Ages.
Luke Brady (John) and Kalon Thibodeaux (Geoffrey) in
a scene from The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • To see Goldman's play through Richard's eyes, imagine a version of Home for the Holidays in which your mother has been temporarily let out of jail, your old boyfriend is the guest of honor, and your two younger brothers are acting like clumsy brats who could prevent you from getting your inheritance.
  • To view The Lion in Winter through Eleanor's eyes, imagine you have to protect your assets from your husband's schemes even if that means encouraging and enabling your sons in a plot to kill their father.
  • To view the situation through Geoffrey's eyes, imagine feeling as if no one takes you seriously despite having more brains than your brothers. Like a Trump supporter, you're willing to let everything go to ruin on the chance that you could still become king (that would really show them!).
  • If you're John, you're too stupid and hungry for your father's love to get anything right.
  • And if you're Henry, you've got to find a way to produce an heir despite your wife's scathing prediction that you'll probably be killed or dead from natural causes before a new wife can produce an heir apparent.
Elliot Lieberman (Richard Lionheart) and Cat Luedtke
(Eleanor of Aquitaine) in a scene from The Lion in Winter
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Working on a handsome unit set designed by Sarah Phykitt (with costumes by Brooke Jennings, lighting by Katie Basu, and sound designed by Ryan Lee Short), Stuart Bousel has directed The Lion in Winter with care to highlight a holiday's treachery while giving the audience plenty of laughs at the expense of Henry's family of fools. Top honors go to Cat Luedtke for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, with Caitlin Evenson as Alais (the only other female in Henry's orbit). Among the ill-behaving men, Steven Westdahl schemes and rages as Henry while Kalon Thibodeaux wallows in political irrelevance as Geoffrey. Elliot Lieberman is a handsome albeit conflicted Richard Lionheart while Luke Brady's John is a petulant fool. As Philip, Will Trichon presents a handsome foil to Henry's acutely dysfunctional family.

Will Trichon portrays Phillip, King of France, in
The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

It should be noted that the events depicted in Goldman's play are fictional, although it has done a splendid job of entertaining audiences for nearly half a century. The original Broadway cast featured Robert Preston as Henry, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor Aquitaine, and Christopher Walken as Philip. The 1999 Broadway revival starred Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing as the unhappy royal couple.

Most audiences know the story from the two film adaptations of Goldman's play. The 1968 film starred Peter O'Toole as Henry, Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, and Timothy Dalton as Philip. In 2003, a made-for-television movie starred Patrick Stewart as Henry and Glenn Close as Eleanor.

Elliot Lieberman (Richard Lionheart), Cat Luedtke (Eleanor
of Aquitaine), and Kalon Thibodeaux (Geoffrey) in a scene
from The Lion in Winter (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of The Lion in Winter continue at the Custom Made Theatre through December 2 (click here for tickets).

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In 1968, when the Arena Stage's production of The Great White Hope moved from Washington, D.C. to Broadway, it was the first production from a regional company ever to make such a transfer. Not only did Howard Sackler's controversial, action-packed play about Jack Johnson (the first African-American man to become world heavyweight boxing champion) win 1969's Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as directed by Ed Sherin it featured breathtaking performances by James Earl Jones as the boxer and Jane Alexander as his white wife. I was fortunate enough to catch two performances of this landmark production, which kept Broadway audiences on the edge of their seats.

A 1970 film version of The Great White Hope earned Jones and Alexander Academy Award nominations for their acting. Starting with 1976's Rocky, Sylvester Stallone's boxing films about Rocky Balboa became a long-running entertainment franchise that (together with pay-per-view boxing matches, wrestling exhibitions, and mixed martial arts events) helped to build a vast audience for faked brutality and ritualized humiliation.

When dramas about combat sports like wrestling and boxing move into small theatrical venues, playwrights and directors have to choose between faking the blood and gore or trying to create an aura of intense theatricality. Following up on its 2012 production of Kristoffer Diaz's award-winning play about professional wrestling's use of racial stereotypes (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity), the Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Marco Ramirez's stunning drama entitled The Royale.

Like The Great White Hope, The Royale focuses on how racism impacted Jack Johnson's boxing career. However, Ramirez's protagonist (played by Calvin M. Thompson) isn't just struggling to overcome the sport's power brokers who refuse to let him fight a white man. He's also trying to right a wrong he witnessed many years ago when his sister, Nina (Atim Udoffia), was a mere child. As Aurora's artistic director, Tom Ross, notes:
"One of the reasons I enjoy this play is that it is not a typical boxing narrative with two pugilists facing each other and punching in the ring. It is a highly stylized theatrical affair which frequently goes inside the head of our protagonist, who is now named Jay 'The Sport' Jackson."
Calvin M. Thompson (Jay) and Satchel André (Fish)
in a scene from The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

Powerfully directed by Darryl V. Jones, The Royale rests on a highly effective musical element whereby actors punctuate the script with their feet, occasionally stomping out sound patterns that reflect the excitement of a boxing match. Instead of boxers actually coming to blows in front of the audience, a careful synchronization of sound and lighting effects with the actors' clapping hands lets the audience know whenever a punch has landed. As the playwright explains:
"There's something about the fiction surrounding boxing that's interesting to me. Boxing is very clear: two elements and one is going to win. Any time I see fight choreography onstage, I can't help but think it looks phony. It's a sport that's so brutal, but like jazz, is improvised. I knew I wanted to do this thing of abstracting the fight, almost like it's the Guernica of the boxing match. Even though it begins and ends with a fight, it's not really about what happens inside the ring. It distills the human struggle. It begins as a play about boxing and it becomes a play about home."
Tim Kniffin (Max) and Calvin M. Thompson (Jay)
in a scene from The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

Set in 1905, Ramirez's Jackson is portrayed as a man who relishes charming the crowd and giving them the kind of thrills they can't even imagine. Simultaneously, Jay's business sense allows him to size up an opportunity from a vastly different perspective than the one held by his white manager, Max (Tim Kniffin). When a retired white heavyweight champion offers to fight Jay for 90% of the purse, Jackson quickly agrees to Bixby's terms over Max's objections. Why? He knows that's the only way he'll ever get an opportunity to fight a white man.

Satchel André as Fish in The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

In addition to Max, Jay must rely on his trainer, Wynton (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.), for guidance and support. After fighting a young boxer named Fish (Satchel André), he's smart enough to hire the man to be his sparring partner. But when Jay's sister appears and begs him not to fight a white man, Jackson's long repressed memories keep haunting him as he prepares for the big fight. Having witnessed an envelope containing two $20 bills pass between Fish and an older white man, he starts to wonder if the people whose emotional support he's counting on may actually be betraying him behind his back.

Atim Udoffia as Nina in The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

Richard Olmsted's simple unit set provides a stark playing ground for the dramatic as well as athletic confrontations in Ramirez's play. Thanks to boxing coach and co-choreographer Joe Orrach, the coordination between lighting designer Kurt Landisman, sound designer James Ard, and the two boxers allow key moments in the boxing ring to take on a dreamy, almost poetic tone. The period costumes by Courtney Flores add an historical anchor to an otherwise abstract production.

The cast of The Royale (Photo by: David Allen)

While the supporting cast does a superb job of framing Jackson's challenges, the key reason to see this production is to witness the finely-etched performances by Calvin M. Thompson and Satchel André as two African American boxers willing to put everything on the line in pursuit of their dreams. Performances of The Royale continue through December 10 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here for tickets).

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