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Marco Ramirez's The Royale and Theatre Movement Bazaar's Hot Cat Make Old Stories New 

Thursday, May 9 2013
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There's a road leading from the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.) to Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group. Now onstage at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City is the second successive new play penned by an author who was first discovered in the 10-Minute Play festival presented at Louisville's Humana Festival. Jennifer Haley's virtual-reality drama The Nether appeared at the Douglas just before Marco Ramirez's boxing drama, The Royale.

To be clear, neither is a 10-minute play, but that festival in Kentucky introduced each young author to the national stage. Both writers now make Los Angeles their home and have participated in CTG's playwrights group and its play-development process.

The message should be clear to young, local scribes: You need to be endorsed elsewhere before having your plays performed on our premier stages.

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Yet at last, at least, CTG is doing back-to-back presentations of new plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. And they're good! This is huge. Those with short memory might even say it's historic.

Yes, the Douglas has presented new works before, and the Taper used to do a sequence of new plays before the Douglas belonged to CTG, but that's all a distant memory.

Staging The Nether and The Royale back-to-back marks the return of forward-thinking intentions by CTG — rather than just importing hits from elsewhere — and that's a satisfying development.

Those with a longer memory may find Ramirez's play echoes Oliver Mayer's boxing drama, Blade to the Heat, presented by the Mark Taper Forum in 1996. It, too, abstracted fight sequences with vivid choreography. It, too, was a thin play, spectacularly staged (by Ron Link) and exquisitely produced, just like The Royale.

The essence of Blade to the Heat was the single, simple notion that boxing is homoerotic. The Royale isn't as interested in that as in the idea of bigotry — how the ascent of a black heavyweight champion, here named Jay Jackson (David St. Louis), to challenge the white champion for the world title sets off waves of shootings and lynchings around the country.

It's a drama about the price of success for Jay Jackson, who appears modeled on Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champ from Galveston, Texas, who won the Negro heavyweight championship in 1903. His 1908 victory in Sydney over the reigning white champ, an Australian named Tommy Burns, set off race riots around the world and led to the expression "The Great White Hope," which was given to many of Johnson's subsequent white challengers (as well as a play about him).

One of those challengers was Jim Jeffries, who came out of retirement in 1910, and whom Johnson flattened on July 4 in the "Fight of the Century" in Reno, Nev. Ramirez's play is an amalgam of these events.

Daniel Aukin stages a mesmerizing spectacle with a perfect five-member ensemble. On Andrew Boyce's set of old hardwood platforms lit (by Lap Chi Chu) via six fluorescent panels suspended at various angles — one aimed directly into the audience — the ensemble and designers create a dance-theater-soundscape in which a fight is depicted by the combatants with both facing the audience, staccato dialogue among the ensemble that narrates turns of events, and accompanying sounds created by the company — clapping, stomping, even breathing.

Desean Terry is a marvel as Jay's initial challenger and later his sparring partner, with all the play's suspense building to "the fight of the century," a black-versus-white showdown in which Jay's real challenger is the visage of his sister (Diarra Oni Kilpatrick), warning him of the lethal real-life consequences of his victory on other blacks. Robert Gossett, as Jay's trainer, and Keith Szarabajka, as his white promoter, also deliver terrific performances.

It's been a century since the "Fight of the Century," but as demographics start to make whites the minority in many American cities, Ramirez's play is a none-too-subtle reminder of how combustible white supremacy can be, and how financially nebulous the rewards of assimilation remain.

Choreographer-director Tina Kronis and her husband, playwright Richard Alger, have a thing going on. It's called Theatre Movement Bazaar, a dance-theater company that has been around for decades, adapting essays and plays into their own idiosyncratic style of ensemble performance.

After a brief sojourn adapting Anton Chekhov — their Track 3 riffed on Three Sisters; Anton's Uncles on Uncle Vanya; and The Treatment on the story "Ward 6" — TMB has turned its attention to Tennessee Williams in a new piece at Theatre of NOTE called Hot Cat.

Three guesses as to which play they're reduxing into a 70-minute, whimsical, music-, dance- and irony-laden reflection that cuts from various angles into the co­nundrums of Brick and Maggie, Gooper and Mae and, of course, Big Mama and Big Daddy.

Redhead Blaire Chandler has a dignified comportment as Big Mama, whom Big Daddy (Eric Neil Gutierrez) can no longer bear the sight of. Their prolific children Gooper and Mae (David LM McIntyre and Jenny Soo) hope to inherit the lion's share of Big Daddy's inheritance once he dies of cancer — an imminent passing.

But Big Daddy finds their mendacity appalling, and so would rather offer his wealth to his football-star son, Brick (David Guerra), now on crutches after busting his ankle on a hurdle while practicing track. He and his voluptuous wife, Maggie (Crystal Diaz), have no kids, plus Brick is an alcoholic. What's Big Daddy to do?

In order to address this and other question inherent in the play, the ensemble all faces the audiences, snaps their fingers and moves synchronistically to rhumbas.

Alger's text takes lines from Williams' play and spins them into new rhythms, so that the word "click," for example, is used to mean both the moment when alcohol kicks in and makes life bearable, and a moment of epiphany. The word recurs, as though in a poem.

In many ways the style of presentation matches that of The Royale: staccato rhythms, actors talking to/at each other while facing the audience, musicality framing the event.

Yet Hot Cat is as ironic as The Royale is earnest — until the finale, a moving pas de deux between the estranged Maggie and Brick, set to the laconic sounds of a piano, in which the entire lunatic tragedy settles into a poignant tenderness.

A similar tenderness comes at the end of The Royale, where the agony of a painful decision is set in an almost tragic counterpoint to the rage underlying it. Both works contain the brutality of survival, and though one is a story of success and the other of failure, each comes shrouded in compassion — so much more moving than the glibness that has punctuated our theater for the past decade.

THE ROYALE | By Marco Ramirez | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (no mat. May 11; no perfs May 14 & 15); through June 2 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org

HOT CAT | Directed and choreographed by Tina Kronis, text by Richard Alger | Presented by Theatre Movement Bazaar at Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through June 1 | (323) 856-8611 | theatreofnote.com

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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