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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
What's more, the story of that event once again landed in the cultural spotlight last year with a film named for that famous — or as some saw it, infamous — tagline. It starred Emma Stone and Steve Carell.
Unlike the movie with its big budget and starry cast, Balls is a less high profile, huge budget proposition. There isn't a major ticket selling name in its ten-member cast, most of whom play several parts. But it IS live theater that manages to very dynamically replay the shot-by-shot drama of that carnival-like Astrodome match on a small playing area. And there's nothing small about its creators' ambition.
Naturally, for a play structured around a tennis match to work as a drama, you need more than two actors doing their utmost to make an intense pretend game amazingly authentic. Ellen Tamaki as King and Donald Carren as Bobby do indeed move around the stage-cum-Astrodome court and hit their pretend balls so that it all feels like the real thing. Though the script by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery doesn't give either Tamaki or Carren much to do in the way of nuanced acting, it does take us through the entire game, and does so within the time that the match lasted.
The creators' grand intent is to establish this crowd-pleasing spectacle as a groundbreaking reflection on women's then burgeoning women's rebellion against being stuck in the ghetto of gender bigotry — as well as a broad-based history of all the social changes preceding and following 29-year-old Billie Jean King's triumphant win of that battle with 53-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs. And so, while Balls does indeed move us through the entire match, the actual game scenes consist of excerpts during which the the net is moved around to indicate the forward movement of the game and accommodate more play-like scenes in between.
The interspersed interludes feature real and fictional characters representing the issues tackled. We hear inner monologues from Riggs and King. We see the Ball Girl and Ball Boy (Elisha Mudly and Alex J. Gould) develop a relationship that, contrary to the game's time frame, keeps jumping forward to span 40 years. There are also intermittent conversations between two fictional fans whose different takes on Billie and Bobby bring on further changes in the zeitgeist over the years. In addition, we have intermittent appearances by real life characters like tennis stars Chris Evert and her first boyfriend, Jimmy Conners; King's husband Larry King (Dante Jeanfelix) and her hair dresser girlfriend Marilyn Barnett (Zakiya Iman Markland).
The Ballgirl and Ball Boy romance tends to be a bit confusing and, for me, those two opinionated guests overstayed their welcome. Oh, and not to be overlooked are the Game Callers (Olivia McGiff and Richard Soudek — Soudek deserving an extra hand for his tennis coaching). Directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint have cast them as clowns which, given the circus-like staging of the 1973 event, makes sense and allows McGiff and Soudek to do all manner of clownish business before and during the show.
In deference to the playwrights' desire to lift the play to something loftier than the publicity stunt it was, those clowns embody the carnival atmosphere. However, you'll have to check out YouTube and the many existing images to see Billie Jean making her entrance as Cleopatra carried in by four hunky guys.
Admirable as the performers are, the staging generally is the big star of this production. Scenic designer Kristen Robinson's transformation of Theater A's small stage into a replica of the Astrodome is dazzling. Brendan Aones' sound design supports the impressive slam-bang impact of those imaginary balls. Kenisha Kelly's costumes are colorful and fun and King's tennis costume matches the one in the Smithsonian.
Finally, a double round of applause for Natalie Lomonte for guiding Tamaki and Corren to move like real pros and provide a win-win-win move for the whole ensemble.
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Written by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery
Directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint
Movement direction by Natalie Lomonte
Cast: Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Danny Bernardy (Terry, Umpire) Alex J. Gould (Ballboy), Dante Jeanfelix (Larry, Jim), Zakiya Iman Markland (Marilyn), Olivia McGiff (Clowngirl), Elisha Mudly (Ballgirl, Chris), Cristina Pitter (Cherry, Umpire), Richard Saudek (Clownboy, Tenns Coach)
Sets: Kristen Robinson
Lighting: Mike Riggs
Costumes: Kenisha Kelly
Dramaturg: Jessica Kaplow Applebaum
Stage Manager: Katherine Shelton
Running Time: 85 minutes, mo intermission
Theater A 59E59 Theater
From 1/16/18; opening 1/24/18; closing 2/25/18. Tuesday to Friday at 7 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 7 PM; and Sunday at 2 PM.
Reviewd by Elyse Sommer at 1/21/18 press preview
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