By Brett Neveu
Directed by Karen Kessler
At A Red Orchid Theatre
Realistic boxing drama a real theatrical knockout!
Brett Neveu, the impressive prolific playwright and ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theatre, has penned another world premiere, The Opponent. It is a riveting multilevel drama that utilizes the action of boxing to expound on such themes as mentor-pupil , father-son relationships plus the nature of preparing, living and remembering our dreams and the effects and consequences of our life choices. Loyalty is tested, even with explosive reactions.
Set designer Joey Wade has created a training center complete with a large boxing ring and punching bags. We meet the middle aged “Tre” Billiford (Guy Van Swearingen) as he cleans the ring of his Lafayette, Lousiana gym in preparation for coaching young aspiring boxers. Today, he is working with Donell Fuseles (Kamal Angelo Bolden), who has a major, pay-per-view prize fight in New Orleans. Tre is trying to both get Donell’s techniques and conditioning ready for his fight. Tre also is using psychological methods including visualizing a winning outcome, laser beam focus and dreaming of the benefits of winning his fight.
What makes this first act so powerful is the enacting, in the ring, many of the warm-up and fighting techniques including footwork, punching styles and ring movements. Kamal Angelo Bolden is quite strong and totally in-shape person who effortlessly jumps rope and punches Guy Van Swearingen in those punch-catching gloves that trainers wear. The two actors are sure in shape as they duck, slide and skip around the ring while exchanging in conversations, arguments, short speeches and zinging quips- all while constantly doing boxing warm-ups. I got tied just watching Bolden bounce and Van Swearingen take his punches.
We hear Tre as he motivates Donnell, in spaite of Tre no longer being Danell’s manager, for his career decisive fight. Tre uses all the tricks a savvy old-time boxer has accumulated over the years. The Louisana-thick Soutnern drawl (deftly taught by dialect coach Kate Devore) took time for my ear to adjust but in the hands of talents like Van Swearingen and Bolden came off as quite realistic. Donell exudes confidence, even a tad of cockiness as he ends act one ready for his fight.
In Act Two, it is five years later. Tre is cleaning his ring in his emptry gym when a haggard Donell arrives. At first Tre pretends that he doesn’t recognize him. Donell is now a journeymen boxer sporting a 8 win and 12 loss boxing record in the secondary Southern boxing circuit. Donnell is both physically and emotionally scared from his trips around the boxing circuit. He wants Tre to ‘tune him up’ for his forthcoming local bout. Tre wants $30 for one hour of boxing exercising; that is all Donnell can afford. We see the two exchanging the angst of two defeated men trying to salvage their hopes and dreams. Their ring work explodes from punching to a full-blown no holds bared boxing match as the two try to regain their lost honor. The father-son and the mentor-student undertone allows each to vent their frustration into one thrilling, and realistic full-fledged boxing match. The gloves are flying as each boxer has their moments. John Tovar’s boxing choreography was breathtaking.
But, two elements make The Opponent a terrific play. Brett Neveu’s writing is filled with restrained truths expounded by the wise Tre and the cocky, self-assured Donell. Among the boxing action are telling observations about more than the boxing world both occupy. The outstanding work by Kamal Angelo Bolden both physically and emotionally was most effective but the fully realized and deeply wrenching performance by Guy Van Swearingen as the salty former boxer turned trainer and gym owner was extremely honest. His work as a Chicago Fire lieutenant keeps in in enough shape to his physically demanding role. These two offer mesmerizing performances that beg to be seen. The Opponent is another example of the fabulous work that the little Equity storefront theatre on Wells street – A Red Orchid constantly produces. The Opportunity is much more that a boxing play.
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For more info checkout The Opponent page at theatreinchicago.com
At A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Street, Chicago, IL, call 312-943-8722, www.aredorchidtheatre.org, Tickets $25 – $30, Thursday thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 1 hour, 40 minutes with intermission, through December 15, 2012