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BWW Reviews: Competition Reigns in 'THE TOURNAMENT' and 'R+J: STAR-CROSS'D DEATH MATCH'

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Competition and theater go hand in hand. The foundation of Western theater, ancient Greek tragedies, were made as a part of a competitive theater festival honoring Dionysus. Today, we incorporate competition in theater all the time, usually in two ways, the gamification of theater (like in devised ensemble pieces) to encouraging audience investment in characters (like in the most popular American theater, pro wrestling). Two of my favorite pieces so far in the Capital Fringe festival, The Tournament and R+J:Star-Crossed Death Match, use competition in these different but exciting ways.

The Tournament at Atlas on H Street takes fighting movie tropes, updates them and turns them on their ear. We start with the traditional kung fu movie opening presenting Jack, a well-muscled and well-disciplined student (played by the campy and delightful James Finley) training with his old master (played by Craig Lawrence nicely, but in a get-up that comes suspiciously close to yellowface). The old master tells us about the Tai Mak, a single-combat tournament, in which Jack's father was killed by The Jackal. Naturally, the old master says that Jack could be the "Chosen One" to win the tournament and take revenge for his father's death. If this play followed the traditional kung fu movie plot, we would follow Jack's revenge story where he would work his way through competitors and eventually face The Jackal in the finals. But playwright Kyle Encinas takes a unique twist on traditional plotlines and instead follows Brian, Jack's punching bag cousin (played by a charming Jake Guinn), whose sad sack antics instantly rally the audience around him.

Brian's counterpart, Valerie Kane (played by a casual and enjoyable Kristen Pilgrim), is equally charismatic, but because of her grit and sass, not her pratfalls. She and Brian make a nice pair whose evident chemistry is shown by an overtly expository, but nicely comedic, scene of their day jobs, guiding Segway tours on the Mall. Her motivation to win the tournament is the $50,000 prize to help her struggling parents, which is more admirable than Brian's underdog status, but less supported by the text.

But text isn't the real reason for going to see The Tournament, neither is the comedy (though there are plenty of laughs) nor the stunning physiques of the actors (though Finley, Pilgrim and Robb Hunter as the Well-Dressed Man by themselves were enough to give me a case of the vapours). You want to come for the fight choreography. Each of the actors, down to bit part players, are fantastic stage fighters, and each character has at least one great "Oh, Damn!" moment where you wonder at their skills in stage combat and recognize the physical talent it takes to make all of that stage violence safe. The fight choreography for The Tournament is a remarkable feat, and the gymnastic moves come from a group of choreographers: Robb Hunter lead as Fight Director and Craig Lawrence, Jenny Male, Lewis Shaw, Chris Niebling, and Casey Kaleba all choreographed fights, as well. It isn't surprising that such a strong and diverse team collaborated to create such a dense and well-crafted set of fights.

The overall effect of this incredible amount of stage violence is a deep investment by the audience in the conflict of the tournament. There were some worrying moments when the crowd was totally silent. I was concerned that they had lost interest in the fights, but their cheers at the execution of some seemingly dangerous maneuver or an overcoming triumph by a main character meant that they weren't bored, just absorbed in the action. That reaction was pretty much universal for this show, which is one thing I loved about it. Shows like this in Fringe tend to be pigeon-holed as a "guy's show," seen by a couple in exchange for watching a softer dance piece, a show whose testosterone-fueled macho-ness completely smothers any subtlety. But The Tournament simultaneously maintains camp violence and adorable comedy, making it fun for whomever likes a bit of fight, a bit of fun, and a bit of getting lost in a staged competition.

This is a fairly accurate representation of the patrons of "R+J: Star-Cross'd Death Match"
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R+J: Star-Cross'd Death Match gets audiences to lose themselves in a totally different way: by enveloping them in the story and making them choose sides in the competition. This competition is the civil brawl of Capulet vs. Montague from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Before you enter the bar (yes, this play takes place in DC Reynold's bar on Georgia Avenue) you select a SOLO cup, blue for Montague or red for Capulet. Even the areas of the bar are divided between the houses, the lower lounge area for the Montagues and the upper bar for the Capulets. Games and competition suffuse this entire play, from the pre-show flip-cup challenges to choose a house champion to taunting the opposing faction to jostling for space to see the actual play, which takes place all over the bar. Yes, all over the bar.

Now might be the time to mention some of the unique rules of R+J: Star-Cross'd Death Match.

  • Rule #1: You will be moving. If you would rather sit down in a comfortable chair in dark theater and let the play happen to you without any effort on your part, see a different play. You will be moving up and down stairs to different parts of the bar. You will be in the front of the crowd for some scenes and the back of the crowd for others. This show is not friendly to the disabled, the boring or the lazy.

  • Rule #2: There will be drinking. And drunk people. Lots of them. The first few shows have sold out, and for good reason, this is one of the more fun shows I've seen in the last year. The show takes place in a bar, and the bar is open all throughout the show. There is no shame in going to the bar and getting a drink while the show is going on. That isn't to say that the show can't be enjoyed without alcohol, but that isn't the typical way of experiencing it. It may go without saying for a show set in a bar, but if you can't stand to be around intoxicated people, this may not be the show for you.

  • Rule #3: You will communicate with the actors. There are sing-a-longs of songs that, if you don't know them, everyone will be happy to teach you. You will have to be close to the actors, and (the horror, the horror) interact with them as if they were people. Some people can't bear this, and I, for one, respect their completely wrong opinion about the nature of theater.

  • Rule #4: If you don't have a problem with Rules 1-3, you will have a blast at this show.

Even among this raucous revelry, LiveArtDC has made some interesting textual choices that make this Romeo and Juliet unique. First, the play is cut heavily. Since much of the showtime is occupied by the business of moving the audience from one scene to another, the flip-cup competitions that stand in for sword fights, and the sing-a-longs, we get the absolute bare bones of the play. That means that going into the play with a passing familiarity of the plot of Romeo and Juliet is useful, so that, even if you have a hard time hearing a scene, you'll still know what is going on. Another interesting choice that they make is to gender-switch Mercutio and Tybalt, the most violent and soldierly characters of the play. This switch not only creates an interesting romantic relationship between Benvolio and Mercutio, but also portrays Tybalt as a femme thug protecting Juliet like an older sister.

Perhaps the most interesting dramatic result of the chaotic structure of Star-Cross'd Death Match is that the show is truly different every night. Not only do members of the audience (the pre-show flip-cup champions of each faction) play Rosalind and Paris, but impromptu call-and-response is encouraged by the cast, and the actors feel free to comment on the audience's behavior throughout the show. I spoke with one of the bartenders, who confessed that he "didn't know shit from Shakespeare," and his observation was that he kept on seeing new details develop through rehearsals and performance that made each night a totally different experience. The fact that he could observe those changes without much theater experience speaks volumes about the capabilities of these actors to adapt to new situations and audiences.

From my perspective, this constant change is one of the best things about the production. It gives the play replay value, and allows the play and the audience to reshape each other in a truly symbiotic relationship. This play is Shakespeare for groundlings, for the people that don't "know shit from Shakespeare," for those that love the living theater. This is a party disguised as play, a revel from a company that understands why Dionysus was simultaneously the god of wine and theater. You'll want to see Star-Cross'd Death Match a second and third time, and raise your SOLO cup again. If you can stand the hangover, that is.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Casey Kaleba was the Fight Choreographer. The fight choreography was actually a collaboration between a number of artists, lead by Robb Hunter as the Fight Director. My apologies to the talented artists who were left out of the article, which has since been corrected.

The Tournament plays at the Spenger Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE in Washington, DC as part of this year's Capital Fringe. For a list of upcoming performances and ticket information, consult the show page on the Capital Fringe website. The show runs about 75 minutes.

"R+J: Star-Cross'd Death Match" plays at DC Reynolds bar at 3628 Georgia Ave NW right near the Georgia Ave/Petworth Metro in Washington, DC as part of this year's Capital Fringe. For a list of upcoming performances and ticket information, consult the show page on the Capital Fringe website. The show runs about 2 hours, give or take a few drinks.

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