The Fighter, unleashed

Defunkt Theatre's "Girl in the Red Corner" is a rousing feminist anthem

“I want to fight someone so bad!”

That’s what I heard one audience member say after the end of defunkt theatre’s fearsome production of Girl in the Red Corner, Stephen Spotswood’s play about the rise of a rookie mixed-martial-arts fighter. I felt the same way, but I also understood that while Girl in the Red Corner is about fighting, it is specifically about women fighting. The true victory is not that the play’s protagonist, Halo (Elizabeth Jackson), becomes a winner, but that she defies abusive men and cynical women by molding her body and spirit into taut, unassailable fighting form.

It’s a long way from where she starts out. Girl in the Red Corner, which was directed by Paul Angelo, begins with Halo divorced, unemployed, and living with her Bud Light-loving mother, Terry (Diane Kondrat), who is about to be fired from her job at Safeway. Halo eventually finds work as a telemarketer, but that defines her less than her lessons with the ruthless Gina (Mamie Colombero) at an MMA gym.

Going with the punches. Photo courtesy defunkt theatre

MMA is the only way Halo can release the rage that has been building inside her ever since she was forced to quit her previous job after being sexually harassed by her boss (the sound of her leg kicking an Everlast pad is like a sonic boom). The only question is whether that will be enough to keep her from falling into the canyons of hopelessness that have consumed her mother and her sister Brinn (Paige Rogers), both of whom have been demeaned by powerful men for so long that they have all but given up resisting.

Girl in the Red Corner might have felt featherweight if it slotted too neatly into the rise-fall-redemption clichés of sports movies. Yet Spotswood’s script take some startling (and thoroughly believable) turns, and the production’s visual audacity consistently catches you off guard. The entire play is staged inside a fighting arena enclosed by a towering chain-link fence—an image that drives home that even the story’s domestic environments are war zones.

The fights—which are complete with savagely graceful slow motion and spurts of stage blood—are equally audacious. Yet what matters most is the cast’s emotional gravity. The performers are warriors of both fists and words, especially Jackson, who is particularly mesmerizing when Brinn’s foul husband Warren (Nathan Dunkin) claims to understand how awful Halo’s customers can be. “Yeah, like when they ask what you’re wearing or if your pussy is wet,” Halo declares. “That’s disgusting,” Warren says without a trace of sympathy, at which point Halo simply replies, “Yeah.” That’s the point, and Jackson delivers it with the force of a woman thrillingly aware of her power.

Some audience members might think it ironic that Girl in the Red Corner is a saga of female empowerment about women beating up women. But Jackson, Spotswood and Angelo clearly understand that there’s something beautiful about learning to master both your strength and your pain. Though she may not say it, that’s Halo’s goal from the beginning, and the joy of watching Girl in the Red Corner comes from seeing her fight to fulfill it.


Girl in the Red Corner continues through June 2 at Defunkt Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.



About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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