[ Click any photo to enlarge. All photos by Russ Rowland. ]
As a modest player myself, and a frequent fan of the major tennis championships, I’ve been currently suffering my annual frustration at the elusive, wee-hours-of-the-morning, live telecasts of the Australian Open matches now underway in the distant time zone of “The Land Down Under.”
But relief has arrived right here in Manhattan, thanks to the fascinating production of BALLS, now gracing the stage of the 59E59 Theaters right here in the Big Apple. “BALLS” was recently developed and premiered by Houston’s famed Stages Repertory Theatre. The very unusual play undertakes to tell the tale of the famed 1973 Battle of the Sexes challenge match in the Houston Astrodome between the rising young tennis star, Billie Jean King, and the notorious braggart, blowhard, and former Wimbledon champion, Bobby Riggs. (Houston Technical Director, Joel Burkholder).
With dazzling direction from Ianthe Demos & Nick Flint, the show’s format is really quite unique. It literally thrusts the audience right into the middle of the action, and even plants two of the event’s rowdy tennis “fans” (Cristina Pitter as Cherry, and Danny Bernardy as Terry) out among the noisy crowd, reinforcing the impression that we are all in this together as the full match is played out right before our eyes during a jam-packed ninety minutes with no intermission. When I say “jam-packed,” I am not kidding. There are times when there is so much going on so quickly, that it is hard to keep track of every point of the match and every tangential story line that punctuates the plot. I was amused when later exiting the theater upon hearing one gent ask the woman he was with, “What did you think of the show?” She responded with terse insight, “Well, it certainly was busy!” For that she may be a candidate for the Understatement of the Year Award. Having said that, this complex and eye-popping production, written by Kevin Armento & Bryony Lavery, is not just for tennis fans, but should have much to offer theater-goers in search of something thought-provoking and very different. As for who wins the match, if you don’t know I won’t give it away, but kudos certainly go to the production’s tennis coach, Richard Saudek, and Movement Director, Natalie Lomonte.
Based on the real persons and events of the day, the play is highlighted by a cast of ten talented actors, including the very graceful and athletic Ellen Tamaki in the role of Billie.
Donald Corren delivers an amusing and raucous portrayal of Bobby, while attractive, statuesque Zakiya Iman Markland provides a touching and powerful performance as Billie’s lesbian lover and personal secretary, Marilyn Barnett. Danté Jeanfelix gives a solid and convincing portrayal as Billie’s husband, Larry King, (and he briefly doubles in a cameo as football star, Jim Brown, representing the many notables in the star-studded audience that had included such celebrities as Glen Campbell and George Foreman).
A superfluous minor side plot as the match progresses, revolves around the imagined developing romance between the match Ballboy (Alex J. Gould) and the Ballgirl (Elisha Mudley). Miss Mudley also does double duty, occasionally appearing as another celebrity present for the match, tennis star, Chris Evert. Adding to the overall mayhem of the carnival atmosphere are the comic antics of the
Clownboy (Richard Saudek) and the Clowngirl (Olivia McGiff), as they amuse the crowd between games with their on-court shenanigans and colorfully outlandish costumes (Designer, Kenisha Kelly). Also between games are the continuing snatches of storylines that touch on Billie’s troubled marriage, her closeted gay relationship with Marilyn, and the less significant romance of the Ballboy & Ballgirl.
The play touches gently on issues of women’s rights, gay rights, and race, but in spite of all the related plot meanderings, I think the biggest star of this production is the brilliantly effective and three-dimensional scenic design of Kristen Robinson, with its uniquely rolling tennis net, affording the audience ever-changing depths and perspectives as it views the match. That set design, coupled with the terrific lighting of designer, Mike Riggs, and the amazingly synchronized sound designs of Brendan Aanes (that perfectly time the sound of every imaginary tennis ball struck), all combine to complete this fascinating illusion.
BALLS continues in New York for a limited engagement through Sunday, February 25th at the 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues). The performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 7 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 7 PM; and Sunday at 2 PM. Single tickets are $25-$70 ($25-$49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.