BWW Review: MAN IN THE RING Goes The Distance

BWW Review: MAN IN THE RING Goes The Distance

Man In The Ring

Written by Michael Cristofer, Directed by Michael Greif; Scenic Design, David Zinn; Costume Design, Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design, Ben Stanton; Sound Design, Matt Tierney; Projection Design, Peter Nigrini & Dan Scully; Music Direction, Arrangements & Incidental Music, Michael McElroy; Fight Direction, Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet; Wig, Hair & Make-Up Design, J. Jared Janas; Dialect Coach, Deborah Hecht; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane

CAST (in order of appearance): John Douglas Thompson, Victor Almanzar, Kyle Vincent Terry, Starla Benford, Gordon Clapp, Sean Boyce Johnson, Eliseo Román, Carla Martinez, Krystal Joy Brown, Richard Gatta, Dave Heard, Michael Underhill; Guitarist - Max Kennedy, Percussionist - Austin Birdy

Performances through December 22 by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

Man In The Ring deserves better than to be described with boxing clichés, but the Huntington Theatre Company production of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cristofer's play is a knockout. Its complex structure, authentic dialogue, and poignant portrayals by an outstanding cast of actors make this biography of six-time world champion prizefighter Emile Griffith much more than a story about a pugilist's career. Seasoned with the rhythms and songs of Griffith's Caribbean island origins, the pulsing beat and glaring neon of the underground gay bar scene, the roar of the arena crowds, and the exploding flashbulbs of reporters clamoring for a piece of the champ, Man In The Ring is an immersive experience that should not be missed.

Professional boxing was a popular sport in America and a staple of television programming in the 1950s and 1960s, and Muhammed Ali was an iconic figure in the 60s and 70s, well-known even among people outside of the sport. Griffith's heydays were the late 50s to the mid-60s, although he didn't fully retire from the ring until 1977. However, the watershed moment of his career was the welterweight championship rematch with Benny "Kid" Paret on March 24, 1962, during which Griffith earned back the crown after pummeling Paret against the ropes so severely that the latter lapsed into a coma and died ten days later. It was a singular event that shook the gentle-natured Griffith who never intended to hurt anyone, and, if the play hews to the factual, it stayed with him until the end of his life.

At the start of the play, we meet 70-year old Emile (John Douglas Thompson) and his caregiver/partner Luis (Victor Almanzar). Afflicted with brain damage after decades of hits and knockouts, Emile lacks the ability to perform simple acts of daily living without assistance, and his loss of memory is staggering. Yet, Man In The Ring is a memory play with the elder Emile observing his life through the eyes and actions of Young Emile (Kyle Vincent Terry). It is beautifully staged by multiple Tony Award-nominee Director Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen, Rent, Grey Gardens, Next to Normal), with outstanding design elements essential to the authenticity of the narrative (David Zinn, set; Ben Stanton, lighting; Matt Tierney, sound; Emilio Sosa, costume; Peter Nigrini & Dan Scully, projections). Fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet makes the scenes in the ring both artistic and powerfully realistic, and Michael McElroy (music direction, arrangements & incidental music) infuses the story with a rich, emotional soundtrack, with live accompaniment provided by Max Kennedy (guitar) and Austin Birdy (percussion).

Key players in Griffith's life are his mother Emelda (Starla Benford), who farmed out her seven babies to family members so she could provide for them, yet loves and stands by her son; Howie Albert (Gordon Clapp), the hat factory owner who sees the strapping young man's potential and turns him into a reluctant boxer, while guiding him as a surrogate father; Paret (Sean Boyce Johnson), whose taunting use of homophobic slurs at their weigh-in prompts the bisexual Griffith's relentless onslaught; his wife Sadie (Krystal Joy Brown), with whom he shares a brief relationship. Also appearing are Paret's manager Manuel Alfaro (Eliseo Román) and the former's wife Lucia (Carla Martinez), and an array of boxers, announcers, and photographers (Richard Gatta, Dave Heard, Michael Underhill).

The play is structured like a boxing match, with scene changes accompanied by the loud clanging of a bell and a distant, amplified voice announcing the setting. There are projected titles, as well, to orient the audience to the action, and grainy, black and white film footage helps portray the historic events. Portions of the set rotate or slide into place, suggesting a bedroom, a gym, a bar, a boxing ring, etc. An abundance of lighting cues enhances the mood of each locale. Character definition is augmented by costumes, especially when the champ is financially flush and appears in a chartreuse suit and stylish fedora. At the same time, Emelda dons a fur coat, and Sadie is alluringly attired in hot pants when she is noticed by Emile.

Thompson and Terry both give bold, daring performances, and it is nearly impossible to single out one or the other as the star of the show. In fact, one of the signature features of Cristofer's script is the way he melds the two actors into one character, even having them share lines of dialogue or swap places in a scene. Between them, they take us on an unflinching journey across fifty years of Griffith's life, inhabiting fully every aspect that the playwright chooses to convey, from humble beginning, to flashy middle, to poignant end. Despite the distinct differences in their age and appearance, the transition from Thompson to Terry and back again is seamless, allowing no room for doubt that they are both Emile Griffith.

Griffith died in 2013 at the age of 75, decades after his retirement, his days of glory, and the famous incident that haunted his life. Yet, the contradictions in his true life story give it dramatic value, and the themes regarding sexual abuse, his sexuality, and how that is viewed in the world of sports make it relevant in 2018. Employing the conceit of a memory play, Cristofer gives Emile the opportunity to review his life and seek redemption on his own terms. The audience plays the role of the impartial jury who can consider all of the factors that contributed to making him the man he was, worthy of remembering and worthy of being celebrated.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Company of Man In The Ring)

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