Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Colossal"


Colossal
Andrew Hinderaker

The Players Prepare
A tail-gate picnic table full of all the wrong, but good things to eat (chips, dip, Cheetos, etc.) along side a full bar of tempting drink specials gives the now-crowded theatre lobby a whole new feel from normal. Reverberating beats and crashes of drums and cymbals from an awaiting auditorium begin to draw in the somewhat reluctant-to-leave, but increasingly curious, partying crowd.  As we turn the corner at the stair’s top, we stare onto a stage-filling artificial-turf football field.  Fully padded, muscular players go through pre-game stretches, push-ups, and drills over the watchful eye of a pacing coach while a fervent drum-line keeps a fierce beat on the sidelines.  Across the field of pounding, puffing, already sweaty footballers is a lighted scoreboard ticking off the minutes to the start of game.  Dodging band and ball players is a lone, fifty-something statue of a man doing his own gentle stretches, mostly oblivious of the others; and they, of him.  And thus it goes until the final two minutes of the countdown when drums stop, players circle on bended knee, and the Texas team joins their coach in the obligatory prayer.  And then the game – and the play – finally begins.

As if it were not already obvious from this pre-play skirmish why Andrew Hinderaker chose to title his play Colossal, the next four, fifteen-minute quarters of game and drama are about to reveal several key reasons.  On this simulated gridiron with six very authentic, college football hunks; a working scoreboard; and an incredibly talented and precision-marching trio 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; the complicated dynamics of interracial friendship and love; and the parental hopes that unmet escalate into explosions between fathers and sons.  Add in a rough-and-tumble football team that transforms in front of us into a fully accomplished, modern dance troupe; an accomplished, young actor who plays on stage a former athlete with a debilitating spinal injury that is closer to his day-to-day, real-life than we might imagine; 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 play could have.

Mike (Jason Stojanovski) Watches Yet Again the Replay
Rolling onto and all about the field in his wheelchair, Mike uses his remote TV control to start, stop, reverse, and spot focus the football action occurring all around him.  He continually plays, replays, and 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 ten months 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 in his mind and on the stage before us both fun and difficult moments, going as far back as when he announced to his shocked and immediately-furious dad (a leader of his own dance company) that he was foregoing all his years of studio training for the gridiron.  (“You do this, and I will never speak to you again,” the dad screams.) 

Now living with his Dad, Mike gets easily annoyed at every attempt his obviously repentful Dad makes to help ease his day-to-day struggles.  With his psychology-trained physical therapist, Mike 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.

Jason Stojanovski (Mike) & Wiley Naman Stasser (Jerry)
Jason Stojanovski as the wheelchair-bound Mike gives a performance that soars in every respect.  We watch as he studies intently from every angle of what we come to realize was his life-altering injury, always pausing in that same spot as he is flying high in the air with his arm outstretched and body prone.  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 (Wiley Naman Strasser).  Their exchanges are at times like sparring boxers and at other times, like a comedy duo.  (Mike: “You seriously talk more than anyone I ever met.”  Jerry: “I am just trying hard to put the therapy back into physical therapy.”)  As Jerry, Mr. Stasser pushes hard and then pushes some more to persuade Mike to let go of regrets of things he cannot change and to tackle with his old, on-field vigor the task at hand: rehabilitation of both body and mind.

We are continually intrigued by the egging of Mike’s alter, younger self (Thomas Gorrebeeck) 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 Younger Mike continually interrupts in chair-bound Mike’s inner mind’s eye other encounters he is having with his father or his therapist as well as engages one-on-one in challenging, mocking, pleading manners.  “God, you look back; it’s been ten months, but you look ten years older,” the still muscular and magazine-cover-handsome Younger Mike taunts.  At other times, the inner voice cries desperately to a Mike who refuses to listen, “Tell him ... Tell him the truth ... Don’t tell him that bullshit.”  These two actors playing two peas of the same pod engage in an ongoing, gripping conversation with self that probably all of us have had at some point in our lives; and they do so masterfully.

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 as the two of them banter and bicker.   This same team of six transforms with full grace and dignity into a dreamlike dance troupe that allows surprising parallels to be drawn between two seemingly disparate worlds (football and dance).  Their half-time performance of frozen lifts, graceful twists, and delicate turns morphs into a final choreography of tribal, masculine steps and stomps – all accompanied by a talented drum corps (Alex Hersler, Zach Smith, and Andrew Humann) who resort at one point to just drum sticks and rhythmic claps to support the dancers.

Cameron Matthews (Marcus) & Thomas Gorrebeeck (Young Mike)
We smile, laugh, and sigh as Mike remembers scenes on field and in gym of quite purposeful bumping, tumbling, and touching with his darkly handsome, curly/coiled co-captain Marcus as well as their hotel-room, first night of cautious, then passionate encounter.  As Marcus, Cameron Matthews never totally comes clean about his feelings for Mike in words but his eyes and those touches on arm, leg, and butt say loudly what is rumbling on deep inside him.  Scared of being discovered in a sport where being ‘that way’ could end his dream of the professional league, Marcus does sheepishly agree someday to meet Mike “at a little chateau in the South of France.”

Finally, our hearts cannot help but extend to Mike’s devoted father, now constant companion, Damon (Robert Parsons).  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.  Damon makes inroads slowly and patiently into cracking the hard shell his son has sealed around himself.  When the crack does finally come in a torrent of tears and admissions of a lost love, the pas de deux of the two former dancers is breath-taking and heart-touching.

Director Jon Tracy has insured Colossal is packed with boldness of action worthy of the gridiron while also infusing the intense reflection and deep sensitivity of a solo dancer.  Keith Pinto’s dance choreography and Dave Maier’s stunt choreography work well hand-in-hand to bring these two disparate, but maybe-not-that-far-apart worlds together.

In the past couple of years and prior to this Bay Area debut, Colossal marched across America in a rolling premiere of five cities.  It was accompanied 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 2015 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.  San Francisco Playhouse’s Colossal delves into several current issues of football while also exploring our stereotypes of the players themselves.  Andrew Hinderaker forces us to confront how we tend to see and treat those different from us by race, sexual orientation, or physical abilities.  In the end though, Colossal 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

Colossal continues at San Francisco Playhouse through April 30, 2016, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/  or by calling 415-677.9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli


2 comments:

  1. The darkly-skinned actor Cameron Matthews' hair was not dread-locked, it was curley/coiled. Very important to properly distinguish this since the article does discuss stereotypes and perception of others based on race, sexual orientation, etc.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification. Made the change.

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