It probably says a lot that the theater has never produced a classic sports play on the mythic scale of a Raging Bull or a Bend it Like Beckham or even a Bad News Bears. It probably has something to do with the knotty challenge of capturing the outsized physicality and adrenaline intensity of competitive sports onstage. Without its spectacle, “the game” is little more than a schematized collection of testosterone-saturated clichés that are simply too closed off and overdetermined to take poetic root.
But that doesn’t mean that For the Love Of (or, the roller derby play) isn’t a seductively rousing show. While Gina Femia’s all-women twist on the venerable locker-room drama doesn’t exactly reinvent the sports narrative, it does persuasively demonstrate how invigorating it can be to simply reorient hoary sports tropes with a new gender perspective. That fresh spin, plus sizzling choreography by director Rhonda Kohl (no actual roller skates are used during the evening) and uniformly fine-grained performances by an electric ensemble, are enough to make Femia’s story feel arena-scaled even on Theatre of NOTE’s uncommonly intimate stage. (The play debuted last year at Chicago’s equally snug Buena at Pride Arts Center.)
As the title says, For the Love Of is a roller derby play. For those who have never seen a real-life L.A. Derby Dolls match or streamed Whip It, director Drew Barrymore’s offbeat, 2009 coming-of-age dramedy set in Texas’ derby milieu, be forewarned: This is not your grandmother’s roller derby. Femia’s fictional Brooklyn Scallywags are part of the all-female derby revival, a strictly amateur but bruisingly empowered, feminist appropriation that uses the old-school roller rulebook but replaces its scripted action and exploitive titillation with a Riot Grrrl attitude and a liberating sense of self.
Most important to that backdrop is the fact that the skaters do not get paid. So when new recruit Joy Ride (the fine Cassandra Blair), a one-time Olympic hopeful and an avid derby fan from New Jersey, turns up at the Scallywags’ practice track as its new blocker, she, like the veteran teammates, is there for reasons other than paying rent. In Joy’s case, that soon includes flirtations sparked by league champ Lizzie Lightning (Tania Verafield, in a masterfully layered performance), a surly Hispanic tattoo artist and the Scallywags’ intimidating star jammer.
True to genre, the budding romance and Joy’s immersion into the Scallywags’ fast, late-night lifestyle sets into motion dominoes that quickly cascade on and off the track. Michelle (Elinor Gunn), Joy’s girlfriend of 10 years and their household’s primary breadwinner, becomes alarmed over Joy’s emotional drift. And within the Scallywags, Joy and Lizzie’s strategic alliance shifts the balance of power away from team manager Andrea the Vagiant (Alina Phelan), who is also Lizzie’s still-wounded recent ex, with near-tragic results. Things eventually come to a head when Michelle is fired from her job and Joy must choose between the team and accompanying her to a new job in Oregon.
If that all sounds somewhat like melodramatic suds, Femia deepens her canvas with a richly observed portrait gallery that faithfully captures Brooklyn’s derby diversity. Standouts include Liesel Hanson, who gives a memorably quirky turn as Squeaky Mouse, a formerly mild-mannered college student whose discovery of roller derby has allowed her to stand “tall.” A fierce Crystal Diaz is the fiery Diaz de los Muertos, for whom skating has provided an escape from the traumatic grief of a brother's death. And Yolanda Snowball is especially endearing as the older Anna-Stecia, whose brute gruffness as a derby girl is belied by her nurturing sweetness as a night convalescent nurse.
The acutely imagined performances go a long way toward backfilling a script whose sometimes blandly naturalistic language can feel underwritten and overfamiliar. And Kohl’s high-velocity staging — abetted by scenic designer Eli Smith’s versatile, gunmetal-drab set pieces; Gillian “DeciBele” Moon’s driving, rock-music soundscape; Vicki Conrad’s scene-specific costumes; and lighting designer Rose Malone’s moody atmospherics — shrewdly directs the focus away from the play’s more glaring deficits.
The nearest thing to a theatrical coup comes in the play’s close, when Femia deftly subverts the genre’s most sacred dichotomies — winner vs. loser, us vs. them, victory vs. defeat. If For the Love Of can’t finally claim that as a total rehabilitation, it’s a very promising start.
Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; through May 26. (323) 856-8611, theatreofnote.com.
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