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Dreams Deferred/Dreams Fulfilled
Review of "Beautiful Burnout"
by Dorothy Chansky
Frantic Assembly/National Theatre Of Scotland
at St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn,
Closed March 27, 2011
"Beautiful Burnount" works at the intersection of two time-honored dramatic questions. What happens to a dream deferred? And, what price glory? If these are recognizably American references, that's no reason for them not to serve this hot, energized Scottish import.
The dream here is to become an acclaimed professional boxer. The title signals that the plan will not come to fruition as envisioned. The dreamers are five scrappy, working class youth training in a seedy amateur gym on the wrong side of the tracks in a Scottish city that holds little promise of a future if they can't make it big in the ring. Their trainer, Bobby Burgess, spots a single real deal in the lot, East Indian Ajay Chopra. Our hero, Cameron Burns, has the makings of an almost-ran, but his unwavering zeal converts even his skeptical mum, Carlotta, to the intoxication of deft fisticuffs in a steamy, self-enclosed world. It's that "almost" to watch out for. A dream fulfilled isn't always what you think it will be.
What makes this piece more than a rehash of a familiar story ("Golden Boy" and "Million Dollar Baby" come most immediately to mind), is the breathtaking movement work the five fighters bring to this fully ensemble-crafted show. Co-directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett founded Frantic Assembly in 1994 and have worked together ever since, often in concert with playwright Bryony Lavery (Frozen), who wrote the script for "Burnout." Hoggett worked on the much acclaimed Black Watch, a piece about the realities of modern soldiering. He also choreographed American Idiot on Broadway. Graham, a lifelong boxing fan, was able to break down particular moves and also to articulate the "moral dilemma" posed by boxing's dual status as locus of rugged individualism and raw blood sport—a dilemma that ghosts this piece even if it is not a major topic of direct discussion.
The voice that introduces us to the play's (under)world is the mum's. Blythe Duff is immediately chatty, winning, and no-nonsense as the parent willing to back her boy, no matter how slovenly he is at home and no matter how dangerous his favorite activity. Home and ring intersect when a character enters via the washing machine, and then when Carlotta shows up in the middle of some heavy sparring during a training session at the gym, where she inhales and becomes smitten with the world of pumping up and knocking out. Some parents are born to support danger. This one has to achieve it, and she takes us along for the ride.
The five hopefuls are both united and divided by their personal agendas. Chopra (Taqi Nazeer) has both charm and an individual style. He also has his own ideas, which eventually get him ousted by the trainer (a perfect tough love Ewan Stewart), whose unwritten rule is "my way or the highway." Dina Massie, the self-proclaimed "battling lassie" (Vicki Manderson) keeps up with the boys because she harbors a not-so-secret rage for the stepfather who abused her. She breaks when she realizes that boxing is not about revenge but about precision and that her rage is not conquerable. Neil Neill (Eddie Kay) is "so good, they named him twice," and the failure to do that tag line with a rhyme ("nice" instead of "good") tells all about his unreliability. Ainsley Binney (Henry Pettigrew) simply thinks too much for his own good. Cameron (Ryan Fletcher) is second choice for the big bout, but Neil's accident provides his opportunity. The five hopefuls' training routines comprise movements that emerge from boxing but are aesthetically enhanced. The actors manage to look like lithe gymnasts in their prime more than like theatrical dancers, a good thing, and their energy is infectious.
The extended precision movement, short-hand dialogue, and mythic story do, however, exact a price where character sympathy is concerned. We know what all seven of the principals are about, but only Carlotta emerges as a quirky, rumpled, yet recognizable individual. The others remain positionalities on which names and thumbnail backstories are pinned. Chopra goes out on his own and does, indeed, become a champion. Neil loses his one big chance due to a minor accident that has nothing to do with boxing but keeps him out of a key bout. Ainsley is asked to find another trainer. Dina stays in the ring, but her job is to strut her body holding ut the cards announcing the round number. I confess I had trouble keeping Ainslie, Neil, and Cameron straight at times.
What was not hard to keep straight was how perfectly the music (by Underworld) and projections (video by Ian William Galloway) worked with the central boxing ring and multi-screen upstage wall (set by Laura Hopkins) to create a universe in which little else is of importance beyond the pounding in the ring and the pounding in the characters' heads. A single foray to a river's edge for a walk is beautifully backed up with water imagery that underscores how little in these characters' world is either beautiful or not mass produced.
It is hardly news that this is a company to watch. If "Beautiful Burnout" is not surprising narrative, it is nonetheless superior embodied storytelling.
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