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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In time so long ago, adventure so passing awesome – Driftwood Theatre’s fundraiser reading of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

So much big time awesome fun WSSW 2014 Poster Artwork webat Whistler’s Grille last night for Driftwood Theatre Group’s 20th season fundraiser reading of Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Quirk Books): Play in a Pub: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.

Driftwood A.D. Jeremy Smith put together an incredible cast for this hilarious and engaging evening of theatrical literature/movie mash-up. Joseph Ziegler* did a marvelous job with Obi Wan Kenobi, all wry wit and wisdom. Oliver Dennis was a delight as the prissy and formal C3P0, and Melissa D’Agostino* was adorably Puck-like as R2D2. Dion Johnstone, suitably attired in a black leather vest, brought the perfect balance of cocky and charm to Han Solo. Michael Hanrahan’s smooth bass voice and gravitas were bang-on for Darth Vader. Sarah Wilson was lovely and sassy as Princess Leia. Richard Alan Campbell brought a nice Shakespearean officiousness to The Chorus. Peter van Gestel used all the colours in the box for Luke Skywalker, from the restless boy longing for adventure to resourceful, brave (and love-smitten) young warrior. Awesome voice work/mimicking from Karl Ang as Jabba the Hutt, Lori Nancy Kalamanski as Chewbacca and Helen King as Greedo (all playing multiple roles throughout); and Andy Pogson did a nice job with multiple roles, including Wedge Antilles and some hapless stormtrooper dudes. Steven Gallagher brought it sly and snake-like – was he channeling Olivier? – as Governor Tarkin. And Steven Burley was awesomesauce outstanding in his role as music and sound effects master – all done with his voice, including the Twentieth Century Fox theme music before launching into the John Williams soundtrack at the beginning of the reading!

Driftwood rounded up some excellent prizes for the evening’s auction and raffles, including a live auction for walk-on roles during the reading and a prize for the best costume.  

We did have a blast. We did feel good. And I’m hoping Mr. Doescher continues writing these Shakespeare/Star Wars mash-ups so Driftwood can do this again. I’d love to hear Burley do “Yoda’s Theme.”

*Casting change: RH Thompson was originally set to play Obi Wan Kenobi and Michael Therriault was to read R2D2.

May the force be with thee – upcoming Driftwood Theatre fundraiser is out of this world

Hey kids! Hope the weekend was good for you. Here’s another fantastic one-night only fundraiser event, and this one promises to be out of this world:

WSSW 2014 Poster Artwork webPlay in a Pub: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Monday, October 28 at Whistler’s Grille. Driftwood Theatre Group presents a reading of Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Quirk Books) for this fundraiser for their 20th season of The Bard’s Bus Tour in 2014.

Driftwood has assembled an impressive cast for this unique theatre experience, including: RH Thomson (Obi Wan Kenobi), Oliver Dennis (C3P0), Michael Therriault (R2D2), Dion Johnstone (Han Solo), Michael Hanrahan (Darth Vader), Sarah Wilson (Princess Leia), Richard Alan Campbell (The Chorus), Peter van Gestel (Luke Skywalker), Karl Ang (Jabba the Hutt), Steven Gallagher (Governor Tarkin), Lori Nancy Kalamanski (Chewbacca), Helen King (Greedo), Andy Pogson (Wedge Antilles) and Steven Burley (music and sound effects).

But wait – there’s more! There will be a live auction and a silent auction – plus the opportunity for cosplay to win a prize! Here are the details from Driftwood’s press release: Audience members will be able to get in on the action through a Live Auction offering three walk-on roles as rebels, imperials or interesting creatures. The event will also feature a Mini Silent Auction (featuring 10 boutique packages handpicked by Driftwood Theatre’s board of directors), a Getaway Raffle (win a trip for two to Montreal for some great food, entertainment and luxurious hotel stay) and Best Costume Prize (come as your favourite Star Wars character and you could win BIG).

The action starts at 6:30-8:00 p.m. with the silent auction, with the performance at 8 p.m. Tickets $25 (limited seating). Online at www.driftwoodtheatre.com/event/playinapub/ , by phone at 416-703-2773, or in person at the T.O.Tix Booth (Yonge/Dundas Square). A service charge will apply to all orders.

Seating is limited for this one, kids, so best get yourself online, on the phone or over to T.O. Tix to book yourself a seat on this stellar trip. Hope to see you at Whistler’s Grille (995 Broadview Ave., Toronto)!

You will have a blast. You will feel good. And these are not the droids you are looking for.