Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tyson v Ali: When Men Step Into the Ring

With dancing images of two fighters spliced together with delicate care, the central concept of Director Reid Farrington's Tyson v. Ali seems more fitting a museum installation than theater, but with some development there could be a lot of value in this one hour play theorizing a prizefight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. 

Four actors make their way around the "stage" which is a boxing ring. They alternate in their performances of Tyson and Ali and one man plays the referee (Roger Casey, Femi Olagoke, Dennis A. Allen II, Jonathan Swain, Dave Shelley). Brief monologues to the audience are interspersed with actual spars in the ring. Projections onto movable screens allow for the live-action fights to have historical footage on top of them.  We see Ali and Tyson triumph over other adversaries in the ring and then trash-talk from the sidelines.  Even though we hear from the fighters--one with the cadence of a poetic preacher, the other the bullied child--the live action and theatrical flourishes seem episodic, and uneven.  And though that may be the intent--a pastiche of the past and things that never were--the thesis gets lost in the cacophony.  With so much actual boxing I longed for context about what kind of fighters they were inside the ring as well as out.  I don't know enough about their fighting styles to know who was who in the ring. 

Although scripted by Frank Boudreaux I wished the piece had had a dramaturg--someone to shape the text.   There is a breathtaking  moment where the fighters trace their fights through previous boxers back in time.  Like the "begets" of the Bible it gives a historical context to these two men and how they got here, punch by punch.  But it arrives three-quarters of the way through the play and I longed for that connection more throughout.

Farrington seems primarily interested in the visuals and the ultimate image that Farrington splices together of historic footage between Ali and Tyson is beautiful as it dances on the screen.  But the film elements were so strong they over-shadowed the theatrical live-action for me.

The men are not quite symbols but they are not quite fleshed out either. It's an athletic performance for all and grueling without question. But even that is not used to an effect.

There are moments of interesting things happening but a stronger thesis and connective tissue throughout the work could have elevated the material tremendously.  But it was a fascinating piece at this year's winter theater festival and worth seeing if it makes another appearance. 

Listen to me talk about this piece and others on the Maxamoo podcast. 

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