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Friday, March 25, 2016

Colossal: Dancer from the Dance, at San Francisco Playhouse

Posted By on Fri, Mar 25, 2016 at 12:30 PM

click to enlarge Mike, in a wheelchair, (Jason Stojanovski) remembers Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck, center)’s workouts with the team. - JESSICA PALOPOLI
  • Jessica Palopoli
  • Mike, in a wheelchair, (Jason Stojanovski) remembers Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck, center)’s workouts with the team.

If you were going to write a play about improbable pairings, you could try golfing and Fauvism. Tennis and the sculpture of Alexander Calder. Or, as Andrew Hinderaker has managed in his play Colossal, football and dance. Hinderaker sketches out an unlikely correspondence between the hard-bodied football players who pummel each other to the ground and the hard-bodied dancers whose feet are only at war with gravity. An audience that is glancingly familiar with the concussive contact sport will recognize a heretofore unseen elegance in the way the players move toward each other in formation. Would diehard football fans want to see this slowed-down, shadow play of stockinged uniforms easily transformed into form-fitting leotards? That’s not the question being asked or answered. 

The play starts with the sound of drums. As you walk into the theater, drummers beat out a percussive rhythm. They stand on an open stage grounded with a green AstroTurf floor. The spartan set suggests a football field, and a team is warming up on stage for the big game. They perform warm up exercises and help each other stretch. They huddle together and then disband, encouraging each other with masculine grunts and shouts. A play clock, like those in an actual game, counts down the time to the beginning of the play and the four subsequent “quarters” or acts. Collectively, the drummers and players behave like a tribe of warriors sounding a battle cry. As the clock strikes a double zero, the action of the play begins. 

click to enlarge Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) relives the glory days with his older self (Jason Stojanovski) - JESSICA PALOPOLI
  • Jessica Palopoli
  • Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) relives the glory days with his older self (Jason Stojanovski)

An ex-player named Mike (an affecting Jason Stojanovski) is the protagonist. The scenes shift between his present day life in a wheelchair and flashbacks to his starring role as the team’s quarterback. The glimpses backward slowly assemble the events that lead to Mike's disabling accident. The present day story pits Mike’s troubled psyche against his physical therapist and his choreographer father. As he watches the recording of his final game, Mike pauses the moment before his body falls, when he loses all feeling in his legs. This instant locates the audience at the dramatic center of the story.

The playwright, instead of using a video screen to show the replay, cleverly directs the players on stage to reenact the game. Mike, with his back to the audience, is literally sidelined in his wheelchair and invisible to his former teammates. When he pushes pause on the remote control, his younger self stands immobile in the center of a tackle. His able body is held upright by the other players, one of his legs fully extended as if in preparation for a balletic dance move: a pirouette leading into a jeté. At the split second of his trauma, Mike wants time to stand still. As the memory replays itself before his eyes over and over again, it becomes clear that Mike will have to press play to start the process of healing. But something is blocking his progress, something he is unwilling to confront.

click to enlarge The team prepares for a workout (L-R: Ed Berkeley, Brian Conway, Cameron Matthews, Thomas Gorrebeeck, Xander Ritchey, Brandon Hsieh). - JESSICA PALOPOLI
  • Jessica Palopoli
  • The team prepares for a workout (L-R: Ed Berkeley, Brian Conway, Cameron Matthews, Thomas Gorrebeeck, Xander Ritchey, Brandon Hsieh).

Before we find out more, it’s the halftime show. No cheerleaders appear, no pompoms or melismatic singers. The white lights dim to a golden glow. The drumming, which never entirely quiets, has morphed from a standard drumline into a moody, expressive taiko performance. We’re suddenly transported from the territory of Friday Night Lights to the forests in an Akira Kurosawa film. Each member of the football team then removes his shirt and they dance. If you’re picturing the spectacle of a striptease, the choreographer Keith Pinto has created the opposite effect. This change in tone sounds like a strange misstep. Instead, it moves the audience in closer. Not just to the beauty of the players’ bodies but to their sudden grace. The moment is eye-opening because it allows the audience to see the rigors of football training as akin to that of a dancer’s.

As we move into the third and fourth quarters, we learn the details of Mike’s great secret: his love for Marcus, one of his teammates. There is a lot of body contact and gay sexual innuendo in Colossal but it doesn’t exactly feel like a “homosexual play” per se. For one thing, there isn’t a single kiss anywhere in sight. While the relationship between Mike and Marcus seems to have been passionate, an adult romance of intimates was not in the works. This seems to indicate a causal connection between Mike’s tragedy and gay panic in the world of heterosexual sporting. While this may be the external problem, the most interesting part of the story is watching Stojanovski the actor circle Mike toward self acceptance, both as a newly disabled and gay man. The catharsis onstage feels entirely genuine when he can finally tolerate watching the moment of his fall.

Colossal, through April 30, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post, 415-677-9596.

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