[Original published in TDF Stages, January 25, 2018.]
Balls uses a legendary game to examine gender inequality
It’s fitting that a coed creative team decided to theatricalize the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between 29-year-old women’s champion Billie Jean King and misogynistic 55-year-old huckster Bobby Riggs. Cowritten and codirected by two male-female pairings, Balls is a circus sideshow take on an iconic event that sparked gender debates that are still going today.
Currently running at 59E59 Theaters, the show is the brainchild of One Year Lease, a physical theatre company known for off-kilter ensemble works such as Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, which was told from the perspective of a cell phone. During one of OYL’s annual retreats, performer Richard Saudek and playwright Kevin Armento began discussing which sports they could put onstage. Saudek had been a competitive tennis player in high school and soon the conversation turned to the King-Riggs bout.
Armento, who is 31, had dim memories of “some famous match between a man and a woman.” Once he started researching, he marveled that he hadn’t known more about it. He saw possibilities for a play and thought a female writing partner would be a swell idea. Enter Bryony Lavery, the 70-year-old British playwright of the Tony-nominated Frozen (no, not the Disney musical; this was a drama about pedophilia). Balls is the pair’s first joint venture and offers a rich, multilayered view of the subject thanks to their differences in gender, age, and style.
The cowriters knew they didn’t want to do a straightforward account (especially since 2017’s Battle of the Sexes took that approach). So Armento suggested the ensemble start by recreating the entire match onstage to help the playwrights figure out how the script should work. Saudek served as tennis coach and helped the performers learn how to convincingly mime the shots. As Lavery discovered while developing her boxing drama Beautiful Burnout, artists need extra time to successfully theatricalize sports. “I know how early you have to start to make any sport look authentic onstage,” she says.
As the cast played, the ball fell in the playwrights’ court. The first textual breakthrough was that the action would be framed by the match, which is seen from various vantage points throughout the show. As King and Riggs go at it, spectators pop up and have their say. Naturally, they fall into male-female duos, including King’s husband and girlfriend, a ball boy and a ball girl, and line umpires who double as clowns. “It felt perfect for the things we were looking to explore as a pair of writers working with a pair of directors doing a play about a famous pairing in a gender battle,” says Armento.
While Balls reproduces a touchstone event of the ’70s, the playwrights are parsing it through contemporary eyes. There’s even commentary by a modern-day married couple looking back on how far — or not — we’ve come. “We were always interested in the play never being really firmly in 1973 — it’s always 2018 looking at 1973,” Armento says. “That allows the pairs to deconstruct conversations, battles, and evolutions of gender and race and class and celebrity and fame. How do you fit all that into this play about a tennis match? What really opened it up was having these different pairings that allowed totally different story lines to unfold that were all connected because they were all at the same match.”
Yet even though Balls is thematically and intellectually ambitious, it’s not afraid to be silly, as its double-entendre title indicates. As Armento says, the match “was a circus. To capture the spirit of it, you have to do something ridiculous or it’s going to feel like quiet tennis. We can’t take it all too seriously.”