Elisha Mudly and Donald
Gender equality is one of the defining issues
of our time. The battle for sexual equality isn’t new, but in the sports world,
it hit a circus-like apex in 1973. That’s when the much-hyped Battle of the
Sexes match between tennis greats Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs hit
captures several games, shot-by-shot, in the $100,000 winner-take-all Houston
Astrodome event. True, tennis has its serious fans, but it’s a challenge to
present it on stage as a dynamic set piece.
That the show achieves a you-are-there feel is
thanks to Natalie Lomonte’s clever movement direction. Every ball bounce or
thwak is recreated with physicality and Brendan Aanes’ smart sound design.
The high-energy pacing underscores the serious
stakes, though audiences can be forgiven for initially thinking they are just
there to watch a game.
(Even the seats are covered to
resemble tennis decorum.)
Riggs’ challenge, despite his crude remarks,
was more than a boastful stunt. The hustler/gambler pushed sexism to hype his
ego and future endorsements. But the backdrop proved far more fascinating.
Privilege, inclusion and women’s rights are all
on the agenda. And those big-picture concerns are neatly played out before our
Photos by Russ Rowland (Richard
Saudek and Olivia McGiff)
In 1973, 90 million people watched the feminist
vs. chauvinist tourney in real time. If you were sentient in the era, you’ll
recognize the players, celebrities and casual misogyny that defined the period.
If not, appearances by Jim Brown and Chris Evert will only confuse.
On the plus side, you will see something more:
the genesis of a shifting cultural paradigm still being played out today.
Billie Jean (a super-focused Elisha Mudly) and
Bobby Riggs (Donald Corren in a crazy Riggs’-like wig) are the main event. But
playwrights Kevin Armento (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally) and Bryony
Lavery (Frozen) open the court, literally, to secondary characters whose
lives reflect the maelstrom of changing sexual mores.
Zakiya Iman Markland, Elisha Mudly and Dante
Their goal is to broaden the panorama, but the
move is also confusing. It takes a while to determine what’s going on or why
King’s husband (Dante Jeanfelix) and lover (Zakiya Iman Markland) are together
courtside. (That trio is a worthy subject all its own. The sacrifices and
artifices are carefully constructed to protect image and income — until the
cruelty of betrayal shatters them.)
Produced by One Year Lease Theater Company and
Stages Repertory, which brought the show from Houston to New York, Balls
has a credible cast, interesting staging and sometimes fun, even heartbreaking
moments. It lobs various stories — but the most telling is the backstory to
Billie Jean King.
Visibility, like talent, often comes at a
Theaters, 59 East 59 Street, Manhattan (Through Feb. 25)
tickets visit: http://www.59e59.org/
Time: 85 minutes no intermission