It is 2 p.m., and the lobby-waiting audience finally begins its descent into the lower-floor theatre for the afternoon’s matinee. Reverberating ever more loudly are the beats and crashes of drums and cymbals. As we turn the corner at stair’s end, we make our way around the end zone of an artificial-turf football field into theatre seats arrayed as a stadium. On the field, fully padded, muscular players go through pre-game-like stretches, push-ups, and drills over the watchful eye of a whistle-blowing, barking coach while a fervent drum-line marches in formation around and amongst the pounding and puffing, already sweaty footballers. Across the field is a lighted scoreboard ticking off the minutes to the start of game and play as sidewalk passers-by on the other side of the full-window wall behind it peer in with curious expressions. Dodging band and ball players is a lone, fifty-something ballet dancer doing his own one-man show completely oblivious of the others; and they, of him. And thus it goes for the full fifteen-minute countdown when at horn’s blow, windows suddenly are shaded; lights, extinguished; and on-field action, halted.
As if it were not already obvious from this pre-play skirmish why Andrew Hinderaker chose to title his 5-city, rolling premiere play Colossal, the next four fifteen-minute quarters of game and play were about to reveal many reasons. On this simulated gridiron with eleven very authentic, college football hunks; a working scoreboard; and an incredibly talented and precision-marching quartet of percussionists, we are about to witness a play that tackles multiple, complicated topics. In rapid succession our players lay out big questions that they and we must wrestle: America’s favorite passion and sport and the life-altering injuries it is causing to our heroes on the field; rampant homophobia and gay-bashing among men who alternate between resembling playful boys and fierce rivals in their own relationships; sometimes complicated dynamics of interracial friendship and love; and parental hopes that unmet escalate into explosions between fathers and sons. Add in a football team that transforms in front of us into a fully accomplished modern dance troupe, an actor who plays a paraplegic part on stage that is real-life for him on a day-to-day basis, and a story that grips our souls and attention from beginning kick-off to the end; and Colossal is surely the only title this amazing world premiere could have.
Rolling onto and all about the field in his powered wheelchair, Mike uses his remote control to start, stop, reverse and spot focus the football play and action around him. He soon halts a dramatic, flying leap by one player as he dives over the heads of defenders. That player leaves the frozen scene, comes over to Mike, and begins a banter that will continue off and on for the next four quarters of our play. We soon discover that the footballer is Young Mike prior to a tragic injury three years earlier. Young Mike encourages our chair-bound Mike to relive in his memory the glory of his starring past; Mike directs Young Mike to replay both fun and difficult moments, going as far back as when he announced to his shocked and soon-furious dad (himself leader of his own dance company) that he was foregoing all his years of studio training for the gridiron. Now living with his Dad, Mike is resentful of every attempt his Dad makes to help ease his day-to-day struggles. With his psychology-trained physical therapist, he works half-diligently to recover some use of limp limbs and muscles while dodging attempts to open up and share his inner turmoil with the counselor. Starts and stops of memories flash in his mind’s eye and on the stage before us; and an air of mystery builds exactly why Mike is so reluctant to restart his life. The climax will as a pas de deux that is breath-taking and heart-touching.
Zack Weinstein as the chair-bound Mike gives a performance that soars in every respect. We visibly experience close-hand his mental and physical pain as he struggles through very real rehabilitation exercises with his always encouraging yet persistently demanding therapist/counselor Jerry (Steven Michael Walters). We smile, laugh, and sigh as he remembers scenes of field, gym, and shower purposeful bumping, tumbling, and touching with more than just a passing coincidence his darkly handsome co-captain Marcus as well as their hotel-room first night of passionate encounter. Our hearts extend to his devoted father/companion (the able actor and dancer Joel Ferrell) as he repeatedly is rejected by a son who so clearly just wants to be hugged and to hug but who cannot yet let go of his need to be as independent and strong as he once was. And we are continually intrigued by the egging of his alter, younger self (Alex Stoll) to replay and keep alive the glories of his past self and to avoid at all costs reliving the awful moments and truths of his life-impacting injury. The depth of performance of each of these actors is matched by the hard-hitting, sweating football squad who are called on over and again to replay bits and pieces of the past and who also transform with full grace and dignity into a dreamlike ballet that allows surprising parallels to be drawn between two seemingly disparate worlds (football and ballet).
As Colossal continues to march across America in its rolling premiere (next at Company One Theatre in Boston July 12 - August 15, 2015), it has been accompanied this spring by two other world premiere plays in Berkeley and Los Angeles also dealing with life-threatening and life-ending injuries connected with football: X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story by KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein at Berkeley Repertory Company – reviewed in an earlier post in Theatre Eddys) and Clutch by Shannon Miller at SkyPilot Theatre Company. These three timely and important plays are compared in a recent article of American Theatre that is well worth a read (http://www.americantheatre.org/2015/01/27/football-dramas-that-love-the-players-question-the-game/).
Theatre is at its best when we as audience leave touched in our hearts, challenged in our assumptions, and stimulated to continue the conversation and even to act on what we have learned. Colossal delves into several current issues of football while also exploring our stereotypes of the players themselves as well as how we tend to see and treat those different from us by race, sexual orientation, or physical abilities. In the end though, this is really a story about bravery, forgiveness, and the love of a father and son; and it is at those levels that the story leaves its lasting mark in the audience-goer’s soul.
Rating: 5 E’s