Sunday, June 16, 2019

28 (2019-2020): Review: SQUARE GO (seen June 11, 2019)

“Game of Throws”

Not sure what Square Go, the title of a briskly done, offbeat Scottish play now at 59E59 Theaters, means? Here are some of the alternative expressions provided by the two characters around whom the action revolves: a pager; a heavy swedge; a mano-a-mano; a possible do-in; a guaranteed pumpin; an act of combat; a bust-up; fisticuffs; and a stramash. Finally we get to the simple: “A fight, basically. Man to man. A go. No weapons. Two men, squared off against each other, toe to toe. A square go.”
Daniel Portman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
However, the “men” preparing to have a square go in Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s play, a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, aren’t precisely men, although the actors playing them are. They’re 13-year-old boys at Hammerston High School, “a run of the mill school in a run-of-the-mill town.” One of them is preparing to engage in combat later in the day with a bully named Danny Guthrie (don’t dare call him Daniel). (An even bigger bully, Big Jordan, is another threat.)
Gavin Jon Wright, Daniel Portman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The boy we’re chiefly concerned about is Max (Daniel Portman, Podrick Payne on TV’s Game of Thrones), pudgy, pony-tailed, and obsessed with studying video tapes of wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage but struggling with absent-father issues. Max (the name he prefers over his given one) said something in class that ticked off Danny, “the monster.” Frightened, Max is hiding out in the school loo (bathroom, to you), preparing for his square go by building up his confidence while bantering with his best friend, the wiry, strawberry lace licorice-chewing Stevie Nimmo (Gavin Jon Wright, who originated the role at the Edinburgh Fringe).
Daniel Portman, Gavin Jon Wright. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The metatheatrical style, in which we’re being told the story while it’s in the process of being acted out, and which includes a considerable amount of audience participation—especially when we’re asked to cheer loudly for Max—allows Stevie to play multiple roles, such as the school bullies, a teacher named Mr. Hobbins, and Max’s dad. Given the energetically charged vocal and physical performances on view, it’s not always clear just who’s talking. The actors are so intensely invested in the action, however, it rarely matters that much.
Daniel Portman, Gavin Jon Wright. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Both boys are dressed in wrestling gear of laced-up shoes, shorts, and tank tops, supplemented at times by a Mexican-style wrestling mask, one of the few props emerging from their gym bags. Another is a blow-up doll of a muscular, masked wrestler, eventually used by Stevie to loudly pound the shite out of Max. And a hand-held mic is an indispensable accessory to several scenes.
Gavin Jon Wright, Daniel Portman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Director Finn Den Hertog’s fast-paced, supercharged production takes place entirely on a square white mat, surrounded on four sides by the small audience in 59E59’s tiny Theater C, with not a single scenic element to prevent the possible stepping on your toes or spraying on you of the hyperactive actors’ sweat.
Gavin Jon Wright, Daniel Portman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lighting designer Peter Small makes the most of his opportunities in this spare environment, even using revolving arena-style lights. A strong sound score featuring original music by Frightened Rabbit has a forceful impact. The show’s extreme physicality, which benefits from the movement work of Vicki Manderson, requires considerable athleticism. At one point, for instance, they race rapidly around the perimeters of the small space; at another, they engage in an excellently coordinated wrestling match, close enough to what you might see in a WWW competition to make you hope no one (including ringside spectators) gets hurt.
Gavin Jon Wright, Daniel Portman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Because of the thick, sometimes (for me, at least) impenetrable, Scottish accents, with a plethora of Scottish lingo—a veritable onslaught of vivid vulgarity, urban slang (I had to look up words like “hauners”), nasty insults, and misused vocabulary—you sometimes have to trust your instincts rather than your ears to follow what’s being said.
Gavin Jon Wright. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
But, for all its brevity (one hour), the play makes many sharp points. These touch on misguided boyish visions of masculinity (one scene cites the “seven attributes of being a man”), bullying, sex, name-calling, homophobia, parental needs (and the displacement onto a teacher of affection for a missing parent), and the realization of self-worth amid the smallminded rules of small-town life.

Excellent as are the performances of Portman and Wright, I never for a minute believed that Max and Stevie were 13-year-olds. For all their obvious immaturity, much of these boys’ language, behavior, and sometimes preternaturally wise ideas could as easily be applied to college boys. Even real prepubescent actors would have trouble making them believable.
Gavin Jon Wright. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
They are, though, viscerally compelling, and Hurley and McNair’s play offers Portman and Wright a slambang opportunity for an acting slugfest, or more to the point, a theatrical square go.

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 30