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.

royale-1
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:

 

Advertisements

Intense, complex psychological game of cat & mouse in interrogation thriller Caught

2016-TPM-Caught-251
Sabryn Rock, Meegwun Fairbrother & Jakob Ehman in Caught – photo by Michael Cooper

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) continues its 2015-16 season with resident playwright Jordi Mand’s intimate and gripping Caught, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley.

Sixteen-year-old James (Jakob Ehman) has been caught for theft over $2,000 by department store security guard Trisha (Sabryn Rock) and is being held for questioning in the store’s security holding room while they wait for the police to arrive. James dances around her questions, particularly keen to withhold his name, parents’ cell numbers and address. Cagey and suspect as he continues to rationalize his actions, he has no luck winning over Trisha, who’s becoming increasingly irritated at having to deal with this kid, as well as the poor walkie talkie reception with the officer en route. And by the time the cop arrives (Dan, played by Meegwun Fairbrother), machinations and misunderstandings are well underway. As the interrogation continues, connections and relationships are uncovered – and the balance of power shifts with every new revelation till the three-way dynamic reaches a fevered pitch.

Caught is a short, tight one-act that turns up the heat gradually during the course of the proceedings – and this excellent cast is more than up for it. There’s a tightly wound, restless edge to Rock’s Trisha; intensely focused and earnestly dedicated to her job – perhaps too much so – she’s a suffer-no-fools, by-the-book kinda gal who will occasionally colour outside the lines when circumstances force her to do so. She takes ‘serve and protect’ very seriously and maybe a bit too personally – to the point that she finds herself choosing between justice and the law. Ehman’s performance of James weaves charming, even lovable, precociousness with an infuriating sense of rich kid entitlement; Puck-like, bright and emoting innocence, you’d love this kid if he weren’t such a manipulative little asshole. Fairbrother brings a great sense of inner conflict to Dan and is a great foil for Rock’s Trisha. An imposing figure who can intimidate with the best of them, Dan is a pragmatic, no-nonsense guy – something he has in common with Trisha; however, that’s where their similarities end. As events unfold, it’s clear that Dan is more concerned about his application for promotion, and must choose between departmental politics and justice.

With shouts to production designer John Thompson and assistant Elizabeth Traicus for realizing a tight, realistic interrogation space – one that includes a large cut out window for the audience to witness the action therein, making us part of the system.

An intense, complex psychological game of cat and mouse in interrogation thriller Caught.

Caught runs till Apr 24 in the TPM Backspace – box office info here; you can book tix in advance online.

Check out the awesome new trailer (by Hallie Seline):