Wednesday, January 24, 2018

147 (2017-2018): Review: BALLS (seen January 23, 2018)

“She Was Strong; She Was Invincible”

First there was When Billie Beat Bobby, a 2001 telemovie starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver as tennis stars Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Then there was last year’s well received movie Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Bobby Riggs as the famous athletes. And now there’s a smashing theatre piece, Balls, written by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery, featuring Donald Corren and Ellen Tamaki, two fine actors you may never have heard of, as Riggs and King.

Ellen Tamaki, Donald Korren. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The 85-minute play is a collaborative product of the One Year Lease Theater Company, known for its emphasis on physically driven work, and Houston’s Stages Repertory Theatre, where it was first performed. It was, of course, inspired by the historic 1973 exhibition match played for a $100,000 prize at Houston’s Astrodome (a once spectacular, now abandoned, baseball stadium) between Billie Jean King, then 29, and retired champion Bobby Riggs, 55.
Donald Corren. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Riggs, a colorful, bespectacled, outspoken male chauvinist, who claimed that women players were inferior to men, already had beaten top player Margaret Court in a three-set challenge match. King, also a glasses wearer, was a vocal advocate for gender equality and comparable compensation of prize money for women players. 90 million people worldwide tuned in to watch their Battle of the Sexes.
Ellen Tamika, Dante Jeanfelix. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Balls, marvelously directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint, with truly awesome movement direction by Natalie Lomonte, and benefitting from the tennis coaching of cast member Richard Saudek, uses the famous match to create a phantasmagoric, nonlinear blend of athletic staging, comedic acting and mime, and historical information tying the significance of the King-Riggs story (and their individual bios) to national and world events, many connected to issues of sex and gender (including transgender) parity. 
Elisha Mudly, Richard Saudek, Olivia McGiff. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Like at least three other recent plays, Don’t Say a F**king Word, The Last Match, and the one-act “Break Point,” its performance heart beats loudest when the actors play tennis without actual balls.
Company of Balls. Photo: Russ Rowland.
A net, whose side posts allow it to be maneuvered into different configurations, is placed on a green floor with white boundary lines. Designer Kristen Robinson’s terrific green, white, and yellow set has the green floor ride up the walls at an odd angle, fashioning a surrealistic court on which the actors, remarkably, re-enact the actual shot-for-shot sequence of the original event. Mike Rigg’s lighting design deserves equal praise for its imaginative versatility.
Donald Corren. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Using rackets (as in only one of the plays I mentioned), and accompanied by  Brendan Aones’s extraordinary sound score replicating the thumping of balls on the ground before they’re served and the thwacks when they’re hit, Tamika and Corren make their serves and returns so palpable you can practically see the invisible spheres. I shudder to think how arduous the rehearsals must have been.
Alex J. Gould, Elisha Mudly. Photo: Russ Rowland. 
The effect is greatly heightened by the crouching ballboy (Alex J. Gould) and ballgirl (Elisha Mudly) stationed at either post, where they surreptitiously toss yellow balls against the net, creating the effect of missed shots they then quickly retrieve. 
Richard Saudek, Olivia McGiff. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Balls, of course, has other things on its mind, which it expresses with the help not only of the match but through a variety of well-acted, deliberately overdone characters clothed in Kenisha Kelly’s wonderful costumes. These include two flexible, clown-like mimes representing the line judges (Richard Saudek and Olympia McGiff, the former also a talented juggler), wearing striped shirts and extra-wide ties; the balls stuffed into their hip pockets give their slacks the comical look of jodhpurs.
Christina Pitter, Danny Bernardy. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Then there’s a pair of raucous, touristy superfans, the twins Cherry (Cristina Pitter) and Terry (Danny Bernardy), who comment humorously on their respective idols (she for her, he for him) from an upper gallery at one side of the auditorium.
Richard Saudek, Olivia McGriff. Photo: Russ Rowland.
There’s also the umpire (Bernardy), who often recites factoids about both tennis and an abundance of 1973 events. We’re thus bombarded with news of the first use of “Stockholm syndrome,” Roe v. Wade, the births of future celebs (cue Monica Lewinsky), the recreational drug explosion, politics, and a host of things related to issues of sex and racial equality. Much of this seems excessive, however, as the pile up of curious information becomes increasingly trivial.

Also present are cameos from various celebs of the day, especially Chrissie Evert (Mudly) and Jim Brown (Danté Jeanfelix), and highlighting the downside of fame.
Zakiya Iman Markland, Ellen Tamika, Dante Jeanfelix. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Of course, we meet King’s accommodating, feminist, pro-abortion husband, Larry (Jeanfelix), and her hairdresser cum travel secretary cum lesbian lover, Marilyn Barnett (Zakiya Iman Markland), who’s into Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Both the white Larry and Marilyn (who later filed a painful palimony suit against Billie Jean included in the action) are played by actors of color, allowing the play to encompass the topic of diversity. It’s Marilyn, by the way, who gets to rock Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” 
Ellen Tamika. Photo: Russ Rowland.
An unseen announcer introduces the play in a funny prologue about the relationship of the spherical objects (from the earth to body parts) called balls, after which the lights come up on the ballboy explaining their court responsibilities to the ballgirl. This scene begins the serves and returns of what will be their 40-year romantic/marital relationship, intended to reflect the shifts in nuptial affairs that emerged with the feminist movement. In what already tends toward an overstuffed narrative, these moments, which comprise their own mini-play, seem the least necessary and the most polemic.

Billie Jean and Bobby sometimes talk to each other during the game, expressing scattered thoughts on the symbolic relationship of tennis to life, hustling, male chauvinism, the odds on the game, women’s lib, and so on, much of it accompanied by snatches of pop music that can lead everyone to bust out dancing.

Tennis and theatre have a long relationship going back to the evolution of French playhouses from indoor tennis (jeu de paume) courts in the late 16th century. The rash of plays about tennis may be unusual but, as such works demonstrate, the dynamics of the game serve as a vibrant metaphor for the forehands, backhands, lobs, and overheads that make up the volleys of life.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through February 24