Chicago Theatre Review
Court Theatre’s ‘Man in the Ring’ Spotty, but Dazzling
Man in the Ring – Court Theatre
“Man in the Ring,” which is receiving its world-premiere production at the always excellent Court Theatre, is that most saddening of plays – a work with dazzling moments and theatrical brilliance that, nevertheless, never quite coheres into a complete play.
Based on the true life story of Emile Griffith – a six-time world champion boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands and closeted gay man – “Man in the Ring” does indeed feature many notable qualities: John Culbert’s scenic design, which merges the glossy world of Griffith’s luxurious, world-champion lifestyle with the gritty underworld of training gyms, is beautifully accomplished; Keith Parham’s lighting design, which is used in remarkable fashion during the narrative’s most intense moments (including the infamous fight between Griffith and Benny “Kit” Paret, which resulted in Paret’s death), is a true wonder to behold; and the play’s cast, particularly Court regulars Allen Gilmore, Gabriel Ruiz, and Jacqueline Williams, is top notch.
The main problem, as I alluded to earlier, is that all of those excellent elements never come together, and for that the blame must lie with playwright Michael Cristofer and director Charles Newell, who structure the work in a jumbling, erratic fashion. I understand their intention. The boxing world is one of schism, one of broken bones and grueling training and fast lives (and harder falls); yet, the effect of the show’s narrative structure – one that bounces from quick scene to quick scene, shortchanging the characters and rushing the action – is not one of urgency and aggression, but of hastiness and neglect.
Consider the character of Griffith’s mother, who is played by the masterful Williams. We are given three or four scenes with Griffith’s mother across the show’s 100-odd minutes of running time, and all fit the expected archetype of a parent in a sports-themed narrative: she is warm and inviting to Griffith when he arrives in New York; she is encouraging and determined as he begins his boxing career, despite his disinterest in the sport; and then (surprise!) she is determined to cash in on his success, which leads to the inevitable argument between the two characters (and his inevitable harsh words that cause her to storm out).
“Man in the Ring” does not allow its characters to breath. We are never given any non-plot line scenes, for instance, between Griffith and his wife; instead, we are given one (admittedly humorous) scene of his courtship of her, and then a single scene later on where she complains of his always being out and never paying attention to her. Why was it even necessary for us to know of his wife, given the way the narrative neglects her?
Ultimately, I thought back to a far stronger play of similar tone and scope – “The Body of an American,” which received a terrific production from Stage Left Theatre earlier this year. Although that play’s narrative is similarly fractured and erratic, the action wisely focuses on two characters, not the roster of players that “Man in the Ring” presents us; therefore, the action is able to breath through those characters, and our attention is not jerked back and forth between players and sequences.
“Man in the Ring” would have been much stronger, had it followed a similar approach, but with the action centered on Allen Gilmore’s Griffith and Gabriel Ruiz’s Luis, who plays Griffith’s lover and caretaker. The scenes between those two characters are undoubtedly the strongest in the entire play, and at the show’s end, I found myself wishing their relationship had been the show’s heart and soul, rather than one mere element amidst so many other scattered elements.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Oct. 16 by Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
Tickets are available by calling 773-753-4472 or by visiting http://www.courttheatre.org/.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.