Man In The Ring

November 28, 2018

in Plays

Play (2018)
by Michael Cristofer

Directed by Michael Greif

Huntington Theatre Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
November 16 – December 22, 2018

Music Direction: Michael McElroy
Scenic design: David Zinn; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Sound Design Matt Tierney;

With John Douglas Thompson (Emile Griffith), Victor Almanzar (Luis), Kyle Vincent Terry (Young Emile), Starla Benford (Emelda), Gordon Clapp (Howie Albert), Sean Boyce Johnson (Benny “Kid” Paret); Eliseo Roman (Manuel Alfaro), Carlo Martinez (Lucia Paret), Krystal Joy Brown (Sadie), Richard Gatta (Ensemble), Dave Heard (Ensemble), Michael Underhill (Ensemble), Max Kennedy (Guitarist), Austin Birdy (Percussionist)

John Douglas Thompson as the older Emile Griffith in 'Man In The Ring'

John Douglas Thompson as the older Emile Griffith
in “Man In The Ring”
Photo:T. Charles Erickson
Courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

A superb production of a play about the life of Emile Griffith, a middleweight boxing champion who was, among other things, gay.

Emile Griffith was, as a boy, raped by an uncle. Later on, Emile sought comfort and forgetfulness with male lovers, but that did not stop him from embarking on a professional boxing career and attaining the middleweight championship. The play casts the aged Griffith reflecting on his life and career as it reveals itself before him.

This production is exquisitely done. The music, the lighting, the sets, and most of all, the acting, are truly wonderful. Things are so tight and so well put together that one marvels at the coherence and delicacy of these elements and the capacity of director Michael Greif and his team, including music director Michael McElroy and his excellent team of instrumentalists and vocalists, to make a seamless and penetrating whole out of this show.

The play itself is interesting and engaging, and it is so well put forward in this production that one almost has to split hairs in order to pick apart the narrative from this excellently staged vehicle in which it lives. Nevertheless, one might say that it tries a bit too hard to pack everything in. Griffith’s life story is somewhat complex and delineating his various alignments with women as well as men along the way turns into a pretty long story in which not all the pieces get enough airtime to make sense. That being said, one does understand playwright Michael Cristofer’s motivation for filling the story with all of these pieces. The image of the man in the ring is clearly about a character who is constantly embattled and has so much filling his plate that sometimes all he can do is to strike out against the maelstrom of memories.

Kyle Vincent Perry as the young Emile Griffith, Victor Almanzar as Luis in 'Man In The Ring'

Kyle Vincent Perry as the young Emile Griffith
Victor Almanzar as Luis
in “Man In The Ring”
Photo:T. Charles Erickson
Courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

The most dramatically evocative parts of the play involve the young, impassioned, fight-ready Griffith and the erotic liaisons he seeks to find comfort and respite. The most touching ones involve the interactions between the aged Griffith and Luis, his Hispanic partner, who, after all is said and done, remains faithful, despite intermittently receiving the byproducts of Griffith’s rage and guilt, helping Griffith deal with the demons that pursue him.

Throughout, John Douglas Thompson, as the elder Griffith, offers an exquisitely tender performance, filled with gentle song and a kind of pathetic sweet reflectiveness, perfectly complemented by Victor Almenzar’s Luis, his source of support and companionship. As Thompson’s Griffith strikes out half in dream and delusion, Almenzar’s Luis offers convincing solace, assuaging the anguish with tenderness and repose.

As the young Griffith, Kyle Vincent Terry is feisty and supercharged, responding well to the unexpected – Griffith likes to make women’s hats – and to the passions of the ring – revealing well that Griffith’s capacities to strike out seem to surprise even himself.

A large cast supports this expanded narrative, including Starla Benford as Emelda, his loving but no-nonsense mother, and Gordon Clapp as Howie Albert, his determined but ultimately empathic manager.

Music, directed by Michael McElroy, and adeptly realized by guitarist Max Kennedy, percussionist Austin Birdy, and with singing by the cast, is superbly integrated, subtly introducing and coloring the dramatic scene.

Everything about this production is tight and very professionally pulled together. The sets are intelligently designed and the lighting is effective and evocative.

One can understand why playwright Cristofer put in so many of the details of Griffith’s life, but the play might be more potently charged if it were trimmed just a bit, allowing the viewer to take in the major elements of Griffith’s conflict – the rape by his uncle, his life as a gay man and his guilt over what happens in the ring – with less loss of focus.

Nonetheless, the play, as it is, is compelling and this production of it is exquisite.

– BADMan

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