Huntington's "Man in the Ring": TKO

Kyle Vincent Terry in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

All right, one might as well utter the obvious about the Huntington Theatre Company's current production about a famed prizefighter: It's a TKO. Actually, it's more than a technical knock-out, it's a creative one as well, now in its world premiere. The play, based on an all too true story, is Man in the Ring, formerly an opera, now in the form of a play written by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer and Directed, in his debut with the company, by four-time Tony nominee (for Rent, Grey Gardens, Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen), the phenomenal Michael Greif. Even if one is familiar with the events portrayed, there is much to be revealed, not the least of which is the true meaning of the title which doesn't pertain to professional boxing at all. In fact, even those of us who reject prizefighting as sport will find this the highlight of the theatrical season thus far.

Kyle Vincent Terry & John Douglas Thompson in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

As the play Man in the Ring begins, we're first presented with an elderly black man sitting alone on stage singing a Caribbean children's circle song to himself: “Brown boy in the ring, tra la la la la”. The man is Emile Griffith (John Douglas Thompson), now 70, living with the after effects of years of prizefighting, knockouts and hits having affected his brain. This has resulted in his need for assistance from his caregiver Luis (Victor Almanzar) for even the simplest tasks such as putting on his shoes. Griffith was diagnosed with dementia pugilistica, related to CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, its symptoms mirroring those of other dementias such as Alzheimer's.

The story flashes back fifty years to the era of the much younger Emile (Kyle Vincent Terry) who, having first run away from his aunt's house to a home for wayward and orphaned boys on St. Thomas, is sent for by his mother Emelda (Starla Benford) in New York. Emile wanted to design hats, his mother wanted him to be a singer, and the owner of a hat company, Howie Albert (Gordon Clapp), took one look at his physique and told Emile he would help him train as a boxer. Years later (in 1962), as a six-time world champion boxer, he is playfully teased by his opponent and arch rival Paret (Sean Boyce Johnson), calling him “maricon” (a homophobic Spanish slur referencing the fairly public knowledge of Griffith's bisexuality) at their weigh-in for their match at Madison Square Garden, which ends tragically. The remainder of the story deals with the aftermath of that fateful fight.

Victor Almanzar & Kyle Vincent Terry in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The play, part magical realism and part memory play, is an astonishingly gripping one, though its first act is a mite slow in getting underway. There is also one scene about mixing up a job application for styling women's hats with an audition for prizefighting that is confusing if you're not acquainted with the particulars of Griffith's life. The story of his rise and fall, his hasty brief marriage, and the consequences of a lifetime gone awry, builds in intensity in the second act, partly due to Cristofer's incisive writing and partly to Greif's fascinating direction. The use of some matching, overlapping and contrapuntal dialog is especially captivating (and difficult to describe), well delivered by Terry and Thompson (the latter giving a performance for the ages). The rest of the cast, from Almanzar to Benford to Clapp and Johnson, are all superb. On the creative level, Huntington as usual has a coterie of theatrical champs, from Music Director Michael McElroy to Set Designer David Zinn to Costume Designer Emilio Sosa to Projection Designers Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully and Fight Directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Special notice should be paid to the electrifying Lighting Designer Ben Stanton and dynamic Sound Designer Matt Tierney for their pluperfect contributions.

Kyle Vincent Terry & John Douglas Thompson in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

What transpired in life and on stage was a man's search for redemption after a truly tragic confrontation. As Emile succinctly summed up his sexual life: “I will dance with anybody”, and, equally telling, stated that it was “strange...I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me... (but) I love a man and to so many people, this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person. So even though I never went to jail, I have been in prison almost all my life.” It's a telling expose of the underside of life back in the day (and still today) with its bigotry and callousness. In the end, it was Griffith who was “in the ring”, at the center of the circle song who at last reached out to the one he truly loved. This true-to-life tale ends with a powerful punch that makes the work unforgettably moving and emotionally devastating.

The fight continues at the Calderwood Pavillion venue in the South End until December 22nd.

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