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Theatre in Review: Balls (59E59)

Ellen Tamaki and Donald Corren. Photo: Russ Rowland

Maybe you had to be there, but the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs Battle of the Sexes tennis match was a pop culture publicity stunt that became a watershed moment. Nothing changed overnight, but the defeat of Riggs -- a vulgar provocateur remembered mostly for his obnoxious displays of male chauvinism -- by King -- known for her scrappy, no-nonsense approach to the sport -- signaled that a new world was coming, on the court and elsewhere. It's fascinating that this event is currently being revisited on film and in the theatre -- especially right now, when, daily, powerful men are falling from grace because of their abuse of women.

Indeed, the King-Riggs match offers such rich material that it can be approached in sharply differing ways. The film Battle of the Sexes (a funny, touching slice of social history, which, alas, has underperformed at the box office) delves into the opponents' personal histories, showing how much was at stake for each of them, and building to a surprisingly suspenseful climax, even with a known outcome. Balls is a coproduction of One Year Lease Theater Company and Houston-based Stages Repertory Theatre; the former is known for its extra-theatrical approach to storytelling, and, in Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery's script, the match is subjected to a battery of devices -- past, present, and future all existing on the same plane -- calculated to reveal it as a bellwether of a world in transition.

The match unfolds on Kristen Robinson's set, a tennis court skewed at bizarre angles reminiscent of a silent German Expressionist film. (Brendan Aanes' sound design accomplishes many things, none more dazzling that his perfectly timed cues that create the effect of a game in progress.) Donald Corren's Bobby is a desperate has-been (his heyday was thirty years earlier) who, having found no satisfaction in business or marriage, clings to the spotlight, happy to play the role of clown prince if it keeps him in the game. Ellen Tamaki's Billie is tough as nails and laser-focused on the game, partly as a way of avoiding the messy details of her personal life (more about that in a minute). Both are thoroughly convincing -- no small task, given the time they spend onstage batting imaginary tennis balls back and forth -- but, interestingly, they must share a stage crowded with other participants.

For example, Cherry and Terry, siblings and redneck superfans, provide running commentary on the game. A Ballboy and Ballgirl keep tabs on the action, but, in an inventive, time-bending device, they also fall in love, marry, and grow apart, their lives reshaped in part by the rise of feminism. Also watching closely are Larry, King's devoted husband and manager, and Marilyn, a former hairdresser and now King's "travel secretary," a euphemism for lover. Interestingly, where the film gently depicts King as struggling to come to terms with her lesbianism, Balls presents her as rather more calculating, keeping Marilyn and Larry on a string because it suits her; the play also delves into the palimony suit later filed by Marilyn, which outed King and ended her career in endorsements. Providing ironic commentary on King's public relations issues are Chris Evert, then a rising tennis star, whose career remained undamaged no matter how many times she married, and Jim Brown, the football hero whose film career fizzled after one too many accusations of violence against women.

It's a heady mix, filled with fascinating and evocative details, beginning with Riggs' claim that he stays vital by taking 450 (you read that correctly) vitamins a day. Audience members of a certain age will be amused by Cherry calling out celebrities in the audience: "Lord...Blythe Danner and Ken Howard! Andy Williams and his beautiful French-speaking wife, Claudine Longet!" Marilyn sits courtside, reading from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, although whether for King's benefit or her own is anyone's guess. She has several tense, telling exchanges with Larry, whose support for his wife seems more than a little masochistic. We are given pointers on tennis technique and information about the specific muscles used in the game. An umpire assumes an Olympian viewpoint, dropping tidbits about the constantly turning world -- the Jane Roe decision, Arnold Schwarzenegger's arrival on the scene, the deaths of Betty Grable and Pablo Picasso -- that provide a kind of deep background for the play's events, along with probing comments like the following: "In New Jersey, Althea Gibson, the first professional African American tennis player, wonders when there will be a match symbolic of her equality." (And -- need I point it out? -- when King is outed, Cherry, standing in for millions of fans, turns on her without a second thought, shifting her attention to the prim, ostentatiously Christian Margaret Court, who, even today, continues in her self-appointed role as anti-gay scold.)

Despite the richness of its themes, the play is not always successful. An opening narration about our cave-dwelling ancestors discovering the differences between the sexes is sophomoric rather than amusing, kicking things off on a sour note. Sometimes too much happens at once; the physical miming of the tennis match is so compelling I occasionally lost track of the what the commentators were saying. Cherry and Terry are too caricatured by half: Are there really that many white trash tennis fans? A pair of clown characters inhabit the stage, for reasons I couldn't explain under pain of death. And, at times, King and Riggs end up seeming like supporting characters in their own drama.

Still, under the direction of Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint, Balls is never dull. In addition to the stars, the standouts in the cast include Alex J. Gould and Elisha Mudly, as the Ballboy and Ballgirl, who plausibly pass a near lifetime, falling in and out of love and finding a rueful friendship in the present day, and Zakiya Iman Markland, glittering with desire and, later, malice as Marilyn, who turns on King after eight frustrating years as her back-street girlfriend. Mike Riggs' lighting, which includes a kicky chase effect using the bank of units angled over the set, ranges all over the auditorium as needed. Kenisha Kelly's costumes are solid period creations with such amusing details as the Sugar Daddy logo on Riggs' tennis jacket. (Sugar Daddy was his corporate sponsor; well, it was better than Virginia Slims, no?)

And, in its eccentric way, Balls makes its case that the Battle of the Sexes provides a window on issues that continue to rattle us to this very day. It's also a timely, touching reminder of just how much things have changed. After the match, Riggs wonders, "Will I now only be remembered as the guy who said he could beat any woman alive, and then lost to a woman in front of 90 million people?" King, mustering all the sympathy at her command, says, "Bobby. You fought in the war. You were a number one player. You won Wimbledon." A beat. "But yeah. This is what you'll be remembered for." You've come a long way, baby. -- David Barbour

(26 January 2018)

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