King Lear rose from his seat at the end of the sharply choreographed brawl that is The Set-Up, looked around the heath, smiled broadly and said, “I love this theater community. People will try anything.”
He was hardly alone. The enthusiasm was contagious Friday night in the seats surrounding Tim Stapleton’s boxing ring of a set in the little warehouse space of Shaking the Tree. Of course, the opening night house was packed with friends of the theater – in this case, Cygnet Productions, which is producing this newly adapted stage version of Joseph Moncure March‘s 1928 free-for-all of an epic poem – but I have the sense that a house full of strangers might have felt much the same. Or maybe not, because a lot of the show’s pleasure is in the way it plays around with theatrical conventions, updating and refreshing approaches that might seem buried in the past, and who better than a theatrical audience to appreciate something like that? Then again, the audience is no dummy. And whether this sort of fight club’s your bottle of liniment oil or not, it’s easy to see the thing packs a pretty good punch and is quick on its feet.
So let’s look at a few of the anythings that Lear (veteran actor Tobias Andersen, who plays the dodgy old early retiree starting February 26 at Post5) might’ve been talking about:
- It’s a narrative poem. A long one, and entirely in rhyme, and the adaptation part consists mainly of dividing the lines among nine performers, deciding on the proper rhythm, and fleshing the thing out from the page to the stage (none of which, let’s make clear, is easy). The play’s lines are the poem’s lines, complete with the “he said”s and “she said”s, so you’re constantly aware that this is a work of artifice even as the action pumps a hyped-up realism into your blood.
- It’s a time trip into the experimentalism of another age, and that makes it feel simultaneously quaint and fresh. This is a Jazz Age piece, although it approaches the speakeasy fizz from the underbelly, through the lowlife gamblers and ten-cent pugilists of the dive fight clubs. That’s “dive,” as in “taking a”. Yet it also revels in the sing-song storytelling of an earlier, intensely romantic and populist American narrative-poetic age, so it’s a little like The Cremation of Sam McGee spliced into a Damon Runyon tale.
- It’s like watching Oscar Peterson’s fingers on the keyboards. Up and down they fly, sharp and staccato, like director Louanne Moldovan’s actors leaping in and out of things, tossing dialogue like jangling chords, quickening the pace and slowing it down. The logic of the lines is more musical than narrative, and yet it pushes the story forward, little phrase by little phrase, and the phrases jump like lightning from one actor to another, until the whole thing crescendos and comes tumbling down.
So here’s the set-up. Hank Cartwright and Ted Schulz, as Fingers MacPhail and Spider Stone, are a couple of strictly bush-league fight managers with a string of has-beens, plodders, and never-will-be’s. Another, younger, slicker manager, Tony Diamond (Steve Vanderzee), is grooming a genuine contender (Jonah Weston as Sailor Gray: the names in this show are deliciously Runyonesque), who needs a few wins under his belt before he can realistically challenge the champ. Can Cartwright and Schulz offer up a pug willing to take a dive? Of course: Pansy Jones (Bobby Bermea), who ten years ago was a hot young fighter but after a stretch in the clinker is now, by general agreement, a washed-up bum. A deal is struck, hands are shaken, fight night approaches. Only one problem: Pansy isn’t in on the deal. And then the fists start flying.
Time now for what might seem a side trip, and maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t, because it somehow connects. Many years ago, when I was young and semi-spry, I lived in an attic apartment in a sprawling, ramshackle 18th century house in Salem, Massachusetts, a couple of blocks away from the Witch House, which carries its own tale of good old-fashioned American corruption: it’s where the judge lived who helped send nineteen people to the gallows during the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. Across the hall, in the other attic room, lived an old fighter, his days on the card long past him but one of the guys who still hung around the racket, picking up odd jobs, doing anything he could to keep in the action and make a dime. His name was Archie – of course; in those days every other boxer in America seemed to be an Archie – and he was a little guy, a welterweight maybe, lean and springy and tough as the tendon in a chicken drumstick, and a little bit vacant, with a knobbed and flattened face from too many punches with his hands down. He reacted slowly, while his synapses struggled to connect, but he was always smiling, always cheerful, always happy with his small and cloistered life. Every now and again I’d go down to the corner bar with him and buy him a beer, for which he was grateful, it seemed, out of all proportion. He’d ask me regularly where I was from, because it would slip his mind that he’d asked before, and once, when I told him, yet again, “Seattle,” a dawn of recognition broke slowly across his face. “Seattle!” he said, as if he’d just discovered this place on the impossible opposite edge of the continent. “I got a nephew plays on the Oakland ball club. Maybe you know him!”
Archie would’ve fit right into The Set-Up, which is as much about the hangers-on and small-time operators as it is about the boxers themselves. When I see the faces and hear the voices in this show, I think of him, and they ring true. Moldovan, who collaborated on the adaptation with Shelly Lipkin and David Meyers, has assembled a cast of veterans who aren’t afraid to lead with their wrinkles and paunches: you can see the ghosts of youth and muscle, but they’ve been gradually tenderized and reshaped like Swiss steak. Cartwright, Schulz, Meyers, Don Alder act with their flesh, which to varying degrees is beaten and careworn and experienced and maybe misshapen according to the ideals of youthful male beauty but also, somehow, hopeful: still punching it; still in the game. All of them know how to raise an eyebrow and launch a line. As Pansy, who isn’t, Bermea has the sort of restrained power that could go either way, slackening into irrelevance or gearing up to something ferocious. He’s contained, and propulsive, and when the highly stylized fight begins, you realize not only that he knows the tricks, but also that his old muscles, the ones everyone thought had gone soft, still have a vicious snap. Same with Weston’s Sailor Gray, who conveys a surly arrogance and a slow-dawning realization that he’s in for what might be the fight of his life. Just about everyone moves around, playing various roles, and that’s part of the fun. The younger performers – Vanderzee, Michael Teufel, the irrepressible Jamie Rea – slip and slide easily through a slew of parts, from Battling Fargo and Bald-Headed Man to referee and fighter’s second and Pimply Youth and a couple of tarts in a barroom.
The whole show’s stripped-down but smart, with lights by Jeff Forbes, effective sound design by Sharath Patel and quick-change costumes by Marychris Mass, and sharp, stylized fight choreography by Kristen Mun. Onetime Cherry Poppin’ Daddy Adrian Baxter loops unobtrusively through the proceedings, adding touches of mournful-moody flute and sax. And Cygnet is on familiar ground here: a few seasons ago the company did a successful adaptation of another March narrative poem from the Jazz Age, The Wild Party.
I don’t want to oversell The Set-Up. It’s a middleweight, maybe even light-, not a heavy – more Roberto Duran than Sonny Liston. And the whole romanticized fight milieu, even with its metaphor for the battle between idealism and corruption in the larger culture, isn’t going to be for everybody. Still, it’s good to remember that it’s generally in the lower weight classes that the art of the sport comes out, where you find the tacticians, not just the sluggers. This is a show to enjoy partly for its footwork, for the way its parts move. Just watch out for that hook.
Cygnet Productions’ The Set-Up continues through March 5 at Shaking the Tree. Ticket and schedule information here.