The incendiary impact of one man’s struggle in the ring in the electric, gut-punching The Royale

Dion Johnstone. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper transports us to 1905, where an African-American boxer tests his mettle against the formerly retired white heavyweight champion, with incendiary results that reach far beyond the two men in the ring. This is the electric, gut-punching Canadian premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, inspired by the true story of Jack Johnson, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and running at the Young Centre.

Determined to better his personal best of being crowned African-American Heavyweight Champion, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson sets his sights on being heavyweight champion of the world, convincing fight promoter Max (Diego Matamoros) to arrange a contest between him and retired Champ Bixby; a tall order, as the sport is segregated and a Black fighter has never faced a white fighter in the ring. As Jackson trains for the historic match with his manager Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and new sparring partner Fish (Christef Desir), a visit from his sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) forces him to consider the sociopolitical and personal impacts of this match—especially if he wins.

While insisting that the focus of his lonely ambition and sacrifice is about personal excellence and universal recognition as heavyweight champ, Jay gradually finds himself unable to continue shrugging off the racial and political—and personal—implications of his endeavour. And it’s not until the final charged scene in the ring with the Champ that we realize the great personal stakes driving him—and where he struggles with himself and against a long, violent history of systemic racism and oppression.

Incorporating hip hop-inspired beats and rhythms (composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), and fight choreography (Simon Fon) that focuses on both the physicality and mental state of the fighter—The Royale creates the music in the boxing ring (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) with movement, sound and dialogue that reflects the voice inside the fighter’s head with present, primal ferocity and cocky self-assuredness. All of this in 90 minutes and six compelling rounds of storytelling—and while there are no actual physical blows exchanged, the result is both mind-blowing and gut-wrenching—punctuated by the rhythmic soundscape and startling, atmospheric lighting design (Michelle Ramsey).

Breath-taking work from the ensemble in this intense, profoundly human story. Johnstone gives a charismatic and intensely focused performance as the ambitious, hard-working Jackson; confident, flirtatious and driven, while Jackson’s deflection of personal questions appears to be a shrewd PR move to drive public curiosity, we learn he has a far more urgent reason for protecting his privacy. Johnstone’s Jackson is nicely matched by Desir’s youthful, hungry Fish; an up and coming young fighter who’s impressed Jackson in the ring, Fish is grateful for the opportunity to quit his day job, and becomes a loyal and generous supporter and colleague on the road to Jackson’s life-changing match.

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Dion Johnstone & Sabryn Rock. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Thomas exudes warmth, wisdom and pragmatic good humour as Wynton; more than just Jackson’s manager and trainer, Wynton is a friend and mentor—and the play’s title comes from his story as a young fighter, at a place where a young Black man could make one to two weeks’ wages in an unusual fight match where the winner takes all. Rock is a force to be reckoned with as Jackson’s sister Nina; fiercely protective of her family and acutely aware of the implications of Jackson’s ambitions, Nina sees what he cannot—that this fight goes way beyond a single boxing match. Her words haunt Jackson during the fight, driving home the terrible truth of her words. And Matamoros gives an entertaining turn as the sharp, skeptical promoter Max; while he’s likeable enough through the gruff worldliness, you know Max isn’t entirely on the up and up.

The Royale shows us how one human being’s solitary sacrifice and actions can ripple out, becoming a tidal wave of universal response—and, win or lose, ambition and change both come at a price.

The Royale continues at the Young Centre until November 11. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

 

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Blinded by science in the darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Isaac’s Eye

Christo Graham & Brandon Thomas.

 

Unit 102 Actors Co. gives us fact mixed with fiction, exploring Isaac Newton’s sharp ambition and unique vision in its darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Canadian premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Isaac’s Eye, tightly directed and inventively designed by Adam Belanger, and running at The Assembly Theatre.

With the Actor (Francis Melling) as our guide in this anachronistic look at historical figures—separating fact from fiction as the story unfolds—we become flies on the wall of the attic room where Newton works; writing verses on the walls, and plucking thoughts and theories from his fastidious, imaginative mind.

Ambitious and determined to advance his work and recognition as a scientist—and straining to see the face of God, despite his rejection of traditional religion—a 25-year-old, prematurely white-haired Isaac Newton (Christo Graham) enlists the help of childhood friend and confidant Catherine Storer (Laura Vincent), who runs her father’s apothecary shop, for an introduction to Robert Hooke, Director of Experiments at the Royal Society in London.

Refusing to answer Newton’s letters, Hooke (Brandon Thomas) is finally forced to take notice of this young upstart when he receives documents outlining Newton’s theories—particularly those on the nature of light. Fearing Newton’s work could usurp his own, he sets out to visit Newton; and encounters Sam (Melling), a sick and dying man lying on the side of the road. Sam pleads for help to get to a hospital, but refuses Hooke’s conditions for aid, and is abandoned once again.

When Hooke arrives at Newton’s house, a battle of scientific wits ensues, with Hooke’s attempts at manipulation only serving to solidify Newton’s resolve. Newton believes light=particles; Hooke believes light=waves. Hooke challenges Newton to re-enact his needle in the eye experiment using a disinterested third party as a subject to prove his theory—and he brings Sam in off the streets. Thwarted and increasingly fearful at the thought of being dismissed as a serious scientific mind, Newton resorts to blackmailing Hooke with some personally damaging information gleaned from his diary. Then, it’s Hooke’s turn to reach out to Catherine for assistance; and he fights blackmail with blackmail. And we soon learn that both men are willing to say and do anything to obtain and maintain notoriety in the scientific sphere—and science costs them.

Outstanding work from the cast, playing with fact and fiction, and history with anachronistic language and perspectives. Melling is an affable and engaging narrator to the proceedings; and gives a comic and deeply affecting performance as Sam, who despite his filthy, plague-ridden appearance has wisdom to impart on the nature of life and humanity. Graham does a great job balancing Newton’s naiveté and amorality. Full of youthful energy and enthusiasm, single-minded and driven, Newton’s ambitions are so laser-focused on obtaining professional accolades, he’s unable to really see the woman who loves and supports him. No angel himself, how far will he go to get what he wants? As Hooke, Thomas draws for us a highly intelligent, accomplished and arrogant scientist and architect, living a decidedly libertine lifestyle. Possessing of a deeply jealous yet detached disposition, Hooke can be cruel and sadistic in methodology and manipulative in human interaction. Like Newton, he’s an extremely fucked up and lonely man—but unlike Newton, he knows it. As Catherine, Vincent gives us a shrewd, pragmatic and protectively loyal woman who’s nobody’s fool or doormat. With hopes and desires of her own, Catherine knows she has bad taste in men; and while she’s willing to help, she won’t suffer fools long. Like Sam, Catherine can see that which Newton cannot and Hooke can only grasp at: the grace inherent in everyday life.

What is the cost of ambition? Who and what is important, and who gets to judge? How do we see the world—and what do we miss?

Isaac’s Eye continues at The Assembly Theatre until October 20; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash only)—box office opens half an hour before show time.

 

Fierce ambition & passion in Elizabeth Ruth’s third novel Matadora – book launch

First off, I need to admit some personal bias: I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Ruth’s writing, so I was thrilled to receive word about the launch of her third novel Matadora, hosted by This Is Not A Reading Series (TINARS) and Cormorant Books at the Gladstone Hotel ballroom last night.

The ballroom was packed – so much so, the Gladstone folks had to open up the panels that separate it from the café space. Not surprising, given that there’d been a line forming outside the ballroom, all the way to the entrance of the hotel, shortly after 6:30 p.m.

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Flamenco dancer La Mari

By the bar were some canvasses by Alex Flores, painted in a style reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, the portrait of a woman particularly striking. A slide show of Ruth’s trip to Spain flickered across a screen upstage, featuring stunning colours and sights, including images of a bullfighting ring and bullfighters. Introductions from TINARS and Cormorant Books, and then we were treated to the sights and sounds of Flamenco: dancer La Mari, with singer Maria Assunta and guitarist Juan Dino Toledo. A passionate spectacle, the music and voice haunting and powerful, the dance strong and proud.

The “main event” started with Anju Gogia interviewing Ruth about the book, discussing process and how the story evolved. Many of the points of discussion can also be found in this Quill & Quire Matadora piece.

The thing that struck me most was Ruth’s reference to “chasing your talent.” Even though a writer may not realize what exactly the book is about, and not know what he/she is doing, with time and practice – and, like her heroine Luna, ambition – the process of coming to the page to put these stories, these lives, on paper brings the journey to the book to its conclusion.

Ruth read a short piece from the book, then opened up the floor for a Q&A. I asked how her feelings about bullfighting had changed over the course of researching and writing the book. Earlier, she had mentioned that it was a book about bullfighting that wasn’t really about bullfighting, but about class, feminism and gender – and that universal longing and drive to rise above socially imposed limitations. In loving her subject, Luna, she found herself looking at bullfighting with respect and void of judgement. While bullfighting is blood sport to some, it is art form to others, with views divided along sociopolitical lines in 1930s Spain, where bullfighting eventually became associated with the Franco regime. But, like boxing, bullfighting offered an opportunity to rise from poverty – and, in Luna’s case, it was a chance to pursue her passion and ambition in a profession that was closed to women.

This was a fantastic, vibrant event – extremely well-attended and crackling with excitement. Whoever said Canadian publishing was dead sure would have changed their tune last night. I’m really looking forward to reading Matadora. As part of last night’s festivities, we got to see the book trailer. It was shot and edited by Erin Reilly Clarke, who I had a chance to chat with briefly after the Q&A. She’d seen a late draft of the book and was already in love with it and looking forward to reading the final product – and we both speculated on how Matadora would make an amazing feature. The trailer features actor Joanne Vannicola, with original music by Evalyn Parry:

If you missed the launch, you can catch Ruth reading from Matadora, followed by an interview with NOW Magazine’s Senior Entertainment Editor Susan G. Cole at the Toronto Reference Library in the Elizabeth Beeton Auditorium on May 15 from 7:00 – 8:15 p.m. Admission is free. In the meantime, you can check out Cole’s review of Matadora.