NIGHT AT THE FIGHTS
at Famous Door
"We keep the best and rework the rest," is Powertap's simple credo for Night at the Fights, a highly refined evening of stage combat and comedy that makes audience members squirm in their seats, jump with fright, and laugh whenever possible to break the tension. Violence, comedy, and refinement might seem like strange bedfellows, but an evening consisting solely of fake fights and clown shtick demands the kind of physical and intellectual refinement this highly professional troupe gives it.
Most of the Powertap ensemble have been working together for four years and have produced three incarnations of Night at the Fights. Under the direction of Ned Mochel, they've developed a lean, mean fighting machine in which each actor is in perfect harmony with the others. Wielding rapiers, daggers, quarterstaffs, or fists, they seem superhuman. When their timing is on--and it is for the first 70 minutes--they create an illusion of reality that's mesmerizing. We know what we're seeing is fake, but we believe it's true.
That's quite a feat, considering that the ensemble perform 22 different skits in the course of 90 minutes and that each skit presents an entirely different combative situation. Locations vary from the girders of a skyscraper under construction to a Roman coliseum, an operating room, an 18th-century library, a backyard, and a back alley. The story behind each scene is never verbalized, but it's made clear through the actors' movements, their facial expressions, the look in their eyes. All the fights are choreographed to music, which ranges from medieval chants and classical symphonies to Tom Waits and Poi Dog Pondering.
The combat scenes erupt like balls of fire, but they're cooled down by whimsical clown skits that provide transitions and help set up the situations surrounding the fights. The clowns come off as endearingly dumb creatures of a far lower order than the combatants. Their attitudes, especially in the opening act, set the tone for the evening--anything can happen.
When the show opens, the three clowns (George Fuller, Alison Halstead, and Drew Richardson) begin a series of self-mocking, silly routines, proudly bowing after each one. Then Halstead finds a black box with a big red button on it. She pushes it, and suddenly the clowns are caught in a strange sort of SF time warp. Adventure-movie music blares from above. A film is suddenly projected onto the stage floor at the feet of the stupefied clowns. At the same time four television screens suspended around the stage show the same scene as the film: six sword-wielding men and women (directed by Scott Cummins) in earnest pursuit of one another across the well-manicured grounds of a country estate.
The clowns deal with the intrusion by stomping on the moving images as if they were ants. Their shock and confusion is even greater when the six combatants (Cummins, Matt Kozlowski, Teigh McDonough, Ned Mochel, Frank Nall, and Julia Neary) unexpectedly come to life and flood the stage with their battle. With the theme song from Star Wars blaring, they whirl their swords and engage in a ferocious and genuinely awesome combat.
The choreography is so polished that every move seems spontaneous. When one of the actors is struck the audience grimaces; when another is run through in the groin the audience groans with pain.
After about 70 minutes of this kind of Monty Python-esque reality--during which thugs beat up one guy (totally squirm-inducing) and a barroom brawl breaks out in a Wild West saloon (the funniest act of the evening)--the performers lose a little of their steam. The focus blurs a bit, obscuring the meaning behind some acts, including a clown operation and the hellish scene that follows. It's not the end of the world.
Night at the Fights isn't violence for its own sake. Some of the fights are moving, some are shocking, others are amusing. In the final scene these highly disciplined actors perform a ritualized form of combat, an elegantly choreographed dance with rapier and quarterstaff that emphasizes the show's message, that stage combat is more than sleight of hand.