review: fighting words

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Fighting Words

By Sunil Kuruvilla
Directed by Tara Mallen
A Rivendell Theatre Ensemble production
At the Viaduct Theater

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 25, 2006

Women’s Lives Cycle Through the Boxing Ring and Back to Themselves

The Rivendell Theatre Ensemble production of Sunil Kuruvilla’s drama “Fighting Words” at the Viaduct Theater challenges and frustrates the viewer with glimpses of lovely writing, efficient story telling, and some production imbalances.  The power of the writing and the three complicated women we grow to know in during the play’s ninety minutes is to be applauded and in the end argues that this production should be seen.

Boxer Johnny Owen traveled from small town Wales in 1980 to Los Angeles to fight for the world bantamweight championship.  The men of the town traveled to see him fight.  “Fighting Words” focuses on the lives of three women back home anticipating and finally rehashing this far away fight.  The women represent the few possibilities for them at that time in a small Welsh town: thwarted aspirations for married aspiring broadcaster Nia (Lia Mortensen), misplaced expectations for her younger single sister and amateur pugilist Peg (Jenny Strubin), and the everyday functional fantasies of their married landlady Mrs. Davies (Marilynn Bogetitch).  The women anticipate and finally rehash the fight, and their own hopes and dreams, and make decisions about next steps in their lives.

The play is structured as five scenes in one intermission-less ninety minute act, beginning in the middle of things.  This is not linear story telling.  The initial scene is followed by two scenes set several days before, a few days before the far away championship fight featuring Johnny the home town boy.  The penultimate scene takes us back to the play’s beginning days after the fight, replaying the initially confusing but now clearer speeches, set for the first time in context.  The scene continues with a first hand report about the boxing match and its after effects.  The final scene provides resolution for the three characters: one steps into the rest of her life, another chooses to stay in her fantasy world, and the third is traumatized by the events that have transpired.

This structure is initially jarring: why the quick cuts and sudden shifts backward and forward in time?  But this structural choice is increasingly common.  And as with Craig Wright’s “Grace” (staged at Northlight Theatre earlier this year), this structural device of introducing a scene, moving ahead or back in time around that scene, then returning to it again so that the audience has now has back story to inform the characters’ interactions as they are portrayed a second (or third) time, can be a powerful dramatic technique as it is in this production.

“Fighting Words” contains gorgeous language that is not always well delivered (i.e. not always entirely clear).  The three character structure of this piece requires that each holds up her end.  The relative vocal weakness of the youngest character, at least in pulling off the explosive angry scene before taking off for the fight and her long and important descriptions of what she witnessed there when she returns to Wales, limits the ultimate power of this production.  Perhaps vocal technique is not quite up to the challenge of the dramatic changes this character is asked to carry off.  This may be something that the young actress will grow into during the run of the show.

The set design by Elvia Moreno is streamlined, evocative, and functional.  Seating the audience around the four sides of the playing area as boxing ring provides continued reminders of the central plot focus and metaphor for the play.  The women actively discuss the upcoming fight and Peg actually shadow boxes through the first several scenes of the play.  But other deeper themes are evoked by this structure.  The audience members themselves remain conscious of their role observing the action and the role of the audience in observing and haranguing Johnny (as relayed by Peg in her final speech). In addition, the theme of women choosing to be “observers” or “participants” in their own lives is suggested by this play setting.  The ropes of the fighting ring are configured in various ways as the play proceeds, and are finally brought down entirely, When the ropes come down, all three characters have moved on in some way and embraced their lives.

Direction by Tara Mallen is effective and creatively utilizes the limited space of the playing area.  Movement director and choreographer Keely Jones and fighting coach Amber Gideon did a marvelous job with young Peg’s fighting moves.  Sound design by Victorio Delorio creatively evoked broadcast off stage voices, the sounds of a kitchen (was that a kitchen radio?)  and large congregate space noises.  There was a particularly effective odd buzzing that deeply annoys the characters during the post-fight viewing scene we see twice.  Keith Parham creates a simple lighting design appropriate for the set, effectively creating mood and movement.  The production dramaturg, in this case Ben Calvert, must always be mentioned in my opinion.  (Full disclosure, I am a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.)   While his specific contributions to the production are not delineated, the production notes and set details reflect an attention to historical research and respect for the lives of these characters.

The fighter Johnny dies for his dreams.  The women who knew him make a range of decisions about what to do with what remains of their dreams and their lives.   These women are worth getting to know.

Somewhat Recommended

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 25, 2006)

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