Geva Theatre Center’s ‘The Royale’: A Simple but Stunning Production

Herbert Simpson
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Virtually all of our leading contemporary repertory theaters now include non-traditional experimental techniques in staging not only original new work but also – even especially – to perform and reconsider revivals of historic classics. Canada’s great Stratford Festival now regularly gives us Shakespeare revivals with actors playing characters of the opposite sex, six or seven actors performing plays written to have a cast of more than 30 characters, and realistic people and animals played by puppets. Understandably, their audiences are sharply divided in response.

Stratford’s recent very popular and admired version of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” not only presented the required characters of the two sets of twin-brother masters and servants who confuse everyone they meet about which twin brother is which, but also cast women as male twins and men as women in most of the main roles. The multiple mix-ups got much amused approval; but I thought them to be just wrong and not confusing enough to have fooled Helen Keller. But I have to admit that my local theater is currently turning abstraction into a knockout punch.

Jamal James (left) and Rochester-raised Dazmann Still in ‘The Royale’ at Geva. All photos: Teresa Mogil

Geva Theatre Center’s simple but stunning production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale is not only a modern, evocative play, based loosely on the career of the world’s first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. It is about a boxing match that virtually symbolizes the sport’s historic refutation of racist stereotypes. And it also evokes the art and contradictions of the sport that ultimately triumph over its vulgarity, venality and vice. Working closely with Movement Coordinator Rocio Mendez, Geva Theatre Center’s Associate Artistic Director and Director of Engagement has developed a kind of non-balletic dance technique to illustrate the physical contact, precise effort, and emotional expression of the boxers’ training and actual fight. The sound and rhythm of the boxing is primarily conveyed by staccato stomps on the floor. But the actors are almost always also dancers in their portrayals.

Jamal James and Lisa Tharps in ‘The Royale’

Jamal James has the stature for Jay, the leading man/Jack Johnson role and gives a powerful but poetic sense of inner conflict to Jay’s urgent need to win. DazMann Still is appealing as the insecure young boxer who is his initial opponent in the play. Outstanding among the others is Lisa Tharps, who comes into leading focus late in the play as Jay’s older sister afraid of harm when her black family challenges a white leader [the current boxing champ].

Settings, costumes, and potent visual effects are also slightly stylized and always richly suggest struggle without using violent detail. “Separate but equal” was a ruse, not a reality, in the lives of these black characters. And without the boxers ever touching one another, the climactic fight and its glaring aftermath [virtual silence and blinding light that makes us gasp and blink] do not leave us unexcited or finally untouched. In this case artfulness equals power.

By Herbert Simpson, Contributing Writer

Production: The Royale (Total Rating: ****, out of 4)

Cast: Jamal James, Sean Meehan, DazMann Still, Lisa Tharps, Alexander Thomas

Geva Theater Center – Nextstage, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Rochester, NY.

Director: Pirronne Yousefzadeh

Author: Marco Ramirez

Production: Scenic Designer and Lighting Designer: Seth Reiser, Costume Designer: Sarafina Bush; Sound Designer: Christopher Lane; Dramaturg: Eric Evans; Movement Coordinator: Rocio Mendez

This production was originally staged by the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, NY from March 10 – March 31, 2019, M.Bevin O’Gara, Artistic Director. Center Theater Group/Kirk Douglas Theater, Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director, produced the World Premiere of The Royale in Los Angeles, CA in 2013. Originally produced by Lincoln Center Theater in 2016, New York City. The Royale is presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.

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