Toronto Fringe: Blood, sweat, tears & heart as you root for the underdog in Bout

Matthew Gouveia & Stephanie Carpanini in Bout - photo by Chantale Renee
Matthew Gouveia & Stephanie Carpanini in Bout – photo by Chantale Renee

A struggling actor drawn to the boxing ring. A has-been boxer turned trainer.

As we enter the gym, you can smell the hard work, the fight, the sweat. A lone woman jumps rope in the ring as her trainer catches a cat nap off to the side, classical music blaring over the speakers.

Inspired by her training with three-time world champion, Olympic boxer Mary Spencer, Stephanie Carpanini wrote The Greatest – seven years later, in collaboration with Matthew Gouveia, that one-woman show has been re-imagined as Bout, produced by Sats Theatre and running at Sully’s Boxing Gym (1024 Dupont St., on the north side, a bit west of Dovercourt) during the Toronto Fringe Festival.

Jackie (Carpanini) is a “stumble bum” in auditions, waiting tables to make ends meet in her daily battle to make her mark in the world. Down, but not out, her sense of fight and lifelong fascination with boxing take her to a boxing gym, where she meets “Coach” Manny (Gouveia) and embarks on a journey of hard knocks training and discipline – and the fight of her life.

Incorporating moments from three of the best boxing movies ever made (Raging Bull, Rocky and Million Dollar Baby), Bout tells the story of an everywoman who feels like a nobody, but still strives to be a somebody. Carpanini’s Jackie is full of drive, deep longing and guts. This actor turned boxer is stubborn, determined and unwilling to give up as she pushes herself to be better – an inspiring character that you can’t help but root for. Gouveia’s Manny is a Portuguese Canadian who talks like an Italian; he has a way of cutting through the bullshit and getting to the point – and the heart – of a matter with dead-eye accuracy. He is tough and relentless in his pursuit of excellence, his rough exterior tempered by a big heart and abiding love of the sport.

The site-specific venue, with its accompanying atmosphere and training gear, puts the audience solidly in this world. The fight scene (Chelsea Ferrando as Jackie’s opponent, and Margaret Evraire and Emily Jeffries as the Ring Girls) near the top of the show and the training exercises throughout are intense and evocative of the hard physical, mental and emotional work. And when Jackie’s jumping rope, you can feel the ground vibrating, thumping like a heart pounding blood through veins.

Bout immerses you in the blood, sweat and tears of an underdog full of fight and heart – and features truly beautiful, honest and nuanced performances from Carpanini and Gouveia.

Bout runs every night at Sully’s Gym (except for no show on Mon, July 6) at 10 p.m. – check the show’s Fringe page for more info.

Twilight Zone meets Lord of the Flies in playful, disturbing and disorienting Half a League

Banner image for Half a LeagueHalf a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…
– “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of Half a League, by Scott Garland and directed by Alexander Offord, had its gala opening at Fraser Studios last night. And what a trip it was.

There’s an eerie atmosphere when you walk into the theatre. In the midst of the detritus of the junkyard set – featuring three distinct piles of waste and discarded household items – a dirty faded pale yellow stuffed dog dangles limply from a hangman’s noose. Over the speakers, you can hear a tinny, static-filled robotic voice reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” playing on a loop.

When the house lights go down, a figure emerges from the house entrance, shuffling with great effort as he drags a full hockey bag to the stage. Arming himself with an electric bass, he then takes up his place behind the microphone stage right. It is here that we’re able to get a good look at him. In period costume that includes tails, he is in mime-style white face with circular rosy red cheeks. Eventually, we will learn that he is called Sir Rupert (Victor Pokinko).

Then, bam! Three boys emerge from their hiding places among the three piles of junk (their “posts,” as we soon here them described): Peter (Mamito Kukwikila), Jim (Stephanie Carpanini) and Sam (Katie Corbridge, also the producer/public outreach gal for Rarely Pure Theatre). The boys appear to be playing soldiers. The junkyard is their territory and they are maintaining and defending it. There is a lost boys sense about these kids – and even though their roles within the unit are well-defined, there is the sense that they’re not sure who they are. And when a stranger named Billy (Nicholas Porteous) appears unexpectedly in their midst, the “game” changes dramatically. All while Sir Rupert moves throughout the scene, silently witnessing the proceedings. Skulking unseen, but not always in the background, he only opens his mouth when Pete tells the story of meeting him – his words cryptic, delivered with a malevolent tone. And we learn that it is Sir Rupert’s words that have inspired this war game.

Pokinko does a marvelous job as the ever-present Sir Rupert, going from a seemingly doll-like and innocuous observer to stalker/puppet master – like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a death metal sensibility. Kukwikila has a commanding presence as Pete, the brains of the operation – the senior officer and strategist, the builder of the game as he was inspired to do by Sir Rupert’s words, drawn in and mesmerized – and fully committed to creating and maintaining this world. Carpanini’s Jim is the brawn; all ‘shoot now, ask questions later’ – and Pete and Sam are right to keep him away from firearms. Stout-hearted and loyal, Jim doesn’t question why – he just does. And Corbridge’s Sam, the youngest of the group, is the heart and soul; trying to be tough and pull his weight, but struggling with the uncertainty of his youth and more at home with a stuffed animal than a weapon. All three female actors do an outstanding job of capturing boy culture, the unbridled bravado only reined in by the rules and etiquette of the game, layered over that afraid, lost boy quality. And Porteous’s interloper Billy is a strange one, and his arrival is a particular curiosity (and I’m not going to spoil that here); he does an excellent job of switching on to the game, without losing his sense of mystery. Is he just playing along or really into it? Who are these guys?

Along with the question of who these boys are, the play brings up the issues of kids’ exposure to violence – real or imaginary – and how the glorification of war so easily seeps into a child’s consciousness. See what you think. I think that’s about all I’m going to say. You’ll just have to see this for yourselves. Okay, I will say: long after you leave the theatre, the chanting will haunt you: Half a league, half a league, half a league…

With shouts to the design team for their creative work on this strange, troubling world: Jake Merritt (set), Gaby Grice (costume), props (Lauren Dobbie and Margaret Evraire) and Pokinko (music).

Twilight Zone meets Lord of the Flies in the playful, disturbing and disorienting world of Half a League.

Get out to Fraser Studios to see this. In the meantime, get a sneak peek of the show via interviews with playwright Scott Garland, director Alexander Offord and producer/actor Katie Corbridge.

Half a League runs at Fraser Studios until May 31; you can purchase advance tix online here. You can also keep up with Rarely Pure Theatre on Twitter.