Review: “Girl in the Red Corner”

Elise Marie Davis and August N. Forman in Broken Nose Theatre’s Chicago premiere of GIRL IN THE RED CORNER.
(Photo by Austin D. Oie)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Broken Nose Theatre at
The Den Theatre (2A), 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through March 2
Tickets: Pay what you can
Contact: www.brokennosetheatre.com

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Stephen Spotswood’s “Girl in the Red Corner” tackles the familiar theme of self-actualization through sports but gives it an atypical twist by putting women in the ring – the violent mixed martial arts cage, that is.

The Midwest premiere at Broken Nose Theatre (aptly named, in this case) benefits from a strong cast and savvy direction by Elizabeth Laidlaw, but they can’t quite overcome the shortcomings of the script, despite a number of touching moments and a good ear for how people, especially families, fight.

The story, which begins with Halo (Elise Marie Davis) telling us how punches hurt, then entering a gym seeking martial arts training, is packed with blue-collar clichés and busloads of emotional baggage.

Halo is unemployed, and she recently escaped from an abusive five-year marriage. She has moved back in with her mother, Terry (Michelle Courvais), an alcoholic who has worked for two decades at a grocery store and now finds that her hours are being cut back by management that wants to reduce its pension obligations. She used to be a person who fought back, but now she has given up and instead obsesses over trivia such as whether to paint the bathroom “mint” or “avocado.”

Halo’s older sister, Brinn (Kim Boler), is having trouble with her rebellious 13-year-old daughter’s “experimentation” (she shaves her head, for example), and the fact that the girl is closer to Halo exacerbates the situation. Brinn also is thinking about going back to work, and her marriage to Warren (Mark West) is in trouble. The explosive crisis comes after he helps Halo get a telemarketing job selling internet service at a company where he’s middle management. When she gets fed up by rude potential customers and leaves a tirade for a snippy woman, it costs both of them their jobs.

Halo hits on MMA (mixed martial arts) as something she’ll be able to do, but we learn that prior to entering the gym, she sat outside for two months watching trainer Gina (August N. Forman) before she had the gumption to quit her previous job two weeks before she was eligible for unemployment because her boss was harassing her. Gina, a semi-pro eager to line up her next fight, has a back story involving addiction to painkillers resulting from a serious car accident in high school, the same school, it turns out, that Halo attended.

The evolving friendship between Halo and her trainer is the centerpiece of the 100-minute play, which arguably would have more of an impact without an intermission. With some real throw-downs, it’s a   punishing performance for both of them, though fight choreographer John Tovar does a pretty good job of making fake blows look real. And the verbal exchanges are as important as the physical. For example, the two run though the many expressions intended to put women down as Halo pounds at the gloves held up by Gina.

Davis does a convincing job of navigating Halo’s journey from helpless anger to empowerment, but she’s almost overshadowed by Forman’s “gender-neutral” Gina, who combines exquisitely delicate features with believable toughness. Their growing mutual understanding culminates in a beautiful few minutes, as Gina pins Halo’s braid in place before the latter’s big fight.

Boler is well-cast as Halo’s sister, and Courvais not only portrays Terry well, she’s also Halo’s perpetually smiling and chirpy boss Nancy at the telemarketing job and Gina’s Opponent in the fight cage. Besides playing Warren, West doubles as Gina’s boss Kyle and a hip dude at a club.

The runway staging with Therese Ritchie’s scenic design featuring poster-plastered chain-link fences at either end and mats flecked with blue paint in the middle is serviceable, though the blocking includes some odd pauses, and scenes set outside the gym and ring don’t fit smoothly. On opening night, a light-board outage delayed the curtain half an hour while all the cues were being reset, so it’s not clear if Cat Davis’s design was completely realized. Most of Lizzie Cook’s costumes are fine, as is Isaac Mandel’s sound design.

All in all, I found “Girl in a Red Corner” moderately interesting but also too predictable.