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The Art of Stage Combat




Next Lab and Powertap Productions

at the Next Lab

In the fall of 1990 a group of theatrical fight coordinators, tired of the perception of their craft as auxiliary, produced Night at the Fights, a series of scenes from classic world theater--Moliere, Shakespeare, and so on--highlighting the techniques of simulated combat. The linguini scene from The Odd Couple, for instance, had Oscar and Felix squaring off with knives, saucepans, and other kitchen utensils. This second Night at the Fights, subtitled A Combat Spectacle, likewise contains plenty of intricate weapon wielding, but Dexter Bullard has added his directing skills to those of choreographer Ned Mochel to present an astonishing variety of sketches based on conflict and utilizing an array of exotic props to demystify, at times satirize, and celebrate the misunderstood art of stage combat.

With one exception, the battles adhere to the rules of chivalry. Even in the jungle contest between bantamweight Julia Neary and six-foot-four Frank Nall, involving some surprisingly erotic bayonet versus trench knife skirmishing, the two adversaries are equally skilled. At the conclusion, however, the victor does not slay the defeated opponent but cuts off a lock of hair as a trophy. In another scenario Ned Mochel fences five opponents at once, Cyrano de Bergerac-style, but makes it clear he's an even match for the entire lot.

There's only one ugly fight, perhaps meant to demonstrate the difference between clean and dirty contests--a difference too often ignored in contemporary movie and TV representations of violence. In this street scuffle, a lone handcuffed man (Scott Cummins) is brutally beaten by another man while his companions look on and cheer. We know that the handcuffed man doesn't stand a chance against his sadistic captor (whose side arms indicate he's a policeman, calling to mind the Rodney King case). When the helpless prisoner is finally shot in cold blood, the gun is suddenly exposed for the coward's weapon it is.

Most of Night at the Fights, however, is devoted to more wholesome feuding, as the eight cast members exhibit the diversity of their craft. Some of the situations will look familiar--the rapier match, for instance, in which participants are illuminated only by hand-held flashlights, a variation on the duel by lightning (or exploding shells, or spaceship fire). A bout that precariously balances its two opponents on a seesaw recalls every duel on a suspension bridge/tightrope/catwalk stretching high above a chasm/volcano/alligator pit. (The cliches of swashbuckler swordplay are also cleverly parodied in a duel between two scholars wielding textbooks and writing instruments.) Homage is paid to ethnic fighting styles in the form of samurai long-sword exercises and a Peking Opera scene in which a monkey slays a dragon to the accompaniment of traditional Chinese music.

The program contains only one line of dialogue--most of the scenes are backed by various types of music, from classical to punk rock to country and western. Some of the conflicts are so abstract as to resemble dance: in one piece, two intertwined figures struggle to part in the manner of cells dividing; and in a science-fiction gladiator match, Teigh McDonough and Neary joust with steel-pipe quarterstaffs astride robot steeds, which later convert to body armor for some ground fighting. Humor is provided by two clowns (Tom Carr and Theresa Carson) sparring with chairs, a poignant sketch in which an alcoholic (Matt Kozlowski) uses his hands to express his ambivalent craving for the bottle, and a brief scene hilarious for its sheer simplicity in which six combatants enter armed with motorized devices--power drill, Mixmaster, hair dryer, circular saw, etc.

The trend nowadays is to deplore all violence--genuine or simulated, bare knucks or Marquis of Queensberry. Watching the agile and indefatigable cast of Night at the Fights do their stuff at a range of less than two yards (though the audience is seated above the pitlike playing arena, well out of the way) directs our attention to the sleight of hand necessary to create an illusion of violence while scrupulously maintaining the performers' safety. With its eclectic approach and essentially apolitical attitude, Night at the Fights offers a unique evening of entertainment. It should satisfy both the hard-core action buffs, who file out for popcorn whenever anything as dull as plot or dialogue intrudes on the fisticuffs, and the socially conscious, searching for an educational tool to show children the difference between Miami Vice violence and the kind that fills graveyards.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rich Foreman.

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