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Fight Club

The Public Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida began previews in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater this past week. Since it’s still in previews, and I’m not a reviewer, I will hold off on reviewing a production still in its rehearsal process – there are chat rooms if you like that sort of thing. I will, however, point out one particularly noteworthy aspect of this production – one that’s already the case this early on, and certain to remain the case as the run progresses.

Namely, that this Troilus features the best theatrical fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s bitterly ironic take on Homer’s Iliad, covering a period of the Trojan War ending in (2000-year-old-spoiler-alert) the death of Hector. As such, a considerable amount of stage violence is called for. The choreography, by Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet, boasts tremendous variety, incorporating knife fighting, hand-to-hand, and extensive firearms (the production is modern-dress, and most effectively so). It’s well done in-and-of itself – the fights are creatively staged and well rooted in character and plot. What makes this show’s fights truly extraordinary, however, is the company’s level of commitment to them. These actors do a terrific job performing the fights, revealing as much about their characters through their fighting styles as they do through the verse, and are better drilled than any other company I’ve ever come across.

To give you an idea what I mean, there’s a moment in a fight between Hector and Ajax which is genuinely terrifying. It involves Ajax making a sneak attack on Hector with an improvised weapon – should you head out to Central Park to see it (and you should), you’ll know the moment when it comes by all the screams around you. What’s terrifying is the speed of the strike – rather than the half-speed ballet of most stage fights, this blow is swift enough to be potentially lethal. The only way to do it is for the actor to strike where he knows his partner won’t actually be, the illusion being that he escaped in the nick of time. This sort of fake-out is usually easy to spot, but in this case, there are a dozen or so other actors on stage watching the fight, all choreographed in such a way as to make the move seem to come out of nowhere. It requires a tremendous amount of discipline, and this company clearly has it.

It shouldn’t be surprising – this is the Public Theater, after all, and they can afford the rehearsal time and resources to make these fights work (the budget for the all the blanks in the climactic firefight probably exceeds most Americans’ yearly salary). Yet plenty of other companies have access to comparable resources without producing work of this quality, and it ought to be noticed and applauded.

I mention this now, while the show is still in previews, because I’m genuinely curious as to how this aspect of the show will figure in its ultimate reviews. Not whether the fights are praised to the degree which I’m doing here, however, but whether they’re even noticed at all. Because fight choreography is one of those elements which seems to get taken for granted. (It’s not alone – I used to work as a sound designer, and hoo boy could I bend your ear about that.) Theater is a collaborative art, requiring dozens of different elements to work and click together, yet audiences and critics only ever seem to focus on a tiny handful of those elements in any given show. Worse still, they may completely dismiss them, no matter what their quality – one of those chat rooms I mentioned above already has somebody complaining about the show’s astonishing climactic firefight as “too noisy!”

And that’s why this is the subject of this week’s blog post. I’ve worked on enough shows in enough different capacities to see how the different elements work and click together. I’ve done my fair share of stage combat – I got my Equity card being hurled across the stage in a production of The Cherry Orchard (by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, no less!) Others might not recognize the degree of the achievement of this show’s fight choreography, but I do. Hopefully, now that I’ve pointed out what to look for, you will as well.

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