‘The Royale’ packs a punch

(from left) Robert Christopher Riley as Jay, John Lavelle as Max, and Ray Anthony Thomas as Wynton in Marco Ramirez's The Royale, directed by Rachel Chavkin, Oct. 4 - Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. {Photo Jim Cox}

(from left) Robert Christopher Riley as Jay, John Lavelle as Max, and Ray Anthony Thomas as Wynton in Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Rachel Chavkin, Oct. 4 – Nov. 2, 2014 at The Old Globe. {Photo Jim Cox}

By Erin Philips

Erin Philips

Erin Philips

SAN DIEGO – The Royale is a knockout from the first punch to the last. Written by Marco Ramirez (Orange is the New Black, Sons of Anarchy) and directed by Rachel Chavkin*, a two-time Obie Award-winning and Drama Desk Award-nominated artist, the highly-anticipated production premiered Thursday, Oct. 9 at The Old Globe to a full house and a standing ovation.

Inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, the play follows Jay “The Sport” Jackson on his quest to bring the reigning white heavyweight champion out of retirement and into the ring for the fight of the century. Along the way, Jay must come to terms with the cost and consequences of his pursuit of glory and the wider implications of breaking the race barrier in a segregated, hate-filled society.

Like a boxer, the show relies on rhythm, timing, and fancy footwork to transport the audience to the vibrant world of the boxing circuit at the turn of the 20th century. The actors spar with lightning-fast language, yells, and emphatic laughter. Patterned handclaps, the click of camera shutters and the ring of the bell punctuate the action, creating a repetitive and mesmerizing soundscape.

The ingenious set design and staging use the round, intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre to great effect, with the actors playing to the seats on all sides and constructing and deconstructing the sets for each scene. A central raised wooden platform, props that move up and down on pulleys, and moveable posts and ropes transform the theatre into an arena and the stage into a boxing ring.

The play is a true ensemble piece, and on opening night, the cast shone, delivering a nearly flawless performance. Robert Christopher Riley is wildly charismatic as Jay, and Ray Anthony Thomas is affecting as his wise and world-weary trainer Wynton. Okieriete Onaodowan is all humble smiles and enthusiasm as Fish, Jay’s young sparring partner, and John Lavelle is the perfect mix of business and bombast as Max, Jay’s promoter. Two-thirds of the way through, just when it begins to feel like a predictable sports story,Montego Glover arrives as the fiery and determined Nina, splitting open the narrative like a fist to the lip and almost stealing the show from the men.

Playing in Balboa Park through November 2, The Royale is must-see theatre – creative, exciting, powerful, emotional, stunning.

*
(*fn)Chavkin is the founding Artistic Director of the New York-based theatre company the TEAM. She is one of over 150 theater and film professionals who signed a 2010 Jewish Voice for Peace statement supporting Israeli artists’ refusal to play in a new theatre in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

*
Philips is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts.  She may be contacted via [email protected]

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