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Review: DTC’s “Colossal” – Show: 24 Script: 12

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DTC's Colossal - small - by Karen Almond

Actually, this isn’t ‘touch’ football. Joel Ferrell in center with Alex Stoll. Photos: Karen Almond

 

  • Colossal runs at the Dallas Theater Center through May 3.
  • THINK’s Krys Boyd talks with Colossal‘s lead actors Zack Weinstein, Alex Stoll and Joel Ferrell.
  • FrontRow review
  • Dallas Voice review
  • Dallas Observer review
  • Dallas Morning News review

Andrew Hinderaker’s college-football drama Colossal at the Dallas Theater Center is a splendid fusion of director Kevin Moriarty’s penchant for ingenious theatrics and the Wyly Theatre’s remarkable technical capabilities — all in service of the play’s own heightened athleticism.

This makes for an impressive crunch. You want football’s war-like physicality as visceral as a theater can make it? You want sweaty young bodies on Astroturf and the clattery clash of shoulder pads — and all of this compacted into a dramatic form as tight as a linebacker’s leg muscles?

The DTC’s Colossal delivers this in ways both balletic and bruising. High praise not just to Moriarty but also to movement consultant Bill Lengfelder, football consultant Noel Scarlett, choreographer Joshua Peugh — the entire creative team, really, for doing something as simple as, well, running a football scrimmage on stage. The true challenge came in giving it a lyric yet full-contact credibility.

But beneath all that impressive crunch, there’s an underdeveloped melodrama. Colossal leaves two major players out on the field with not much of a game plan to help them.

Hinderaker’s intermissionless play is about masculinity, about the way men — straight and gay, father and son — talk to each other. Or, actually, don’t talk to each other. They seem to  communicate best through their bodies, through shared exertion, conflict, grace and exultation. We meet an older, paraplegic-version of a UT-Longhorn football player named Mike (Zack Weinstein) reluctantly enduring rehab with a chatty physical therapist (Steven Michael Walters). Meanwhile, Mike is haunted by his hunky younger self (Alex Stoll). Young Mike is a happy warrior on the field, especially when paired with his co-captain Marcus (Khris Davis). They’re running drills, lifting weights, eagerly competing at all the things older Mike can only remember and yearn to do.

Obvously, we know something’s going to happen that’ll put Mike in that wheelchair. Hinderaker cleverly structures his play as a football game, right down to a big electronic scoreboard, counting off the quarters, and a drumline constantly pounding out the beat. This ups the drama, the sense of confrontation between older and younger Mike as they race against the clock. There’s even a half-time show, an exciting dance-and-percussion sequence choreographed by Peugh, artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance.

DTC's Colossal - smallSteven Michael Walters Zack Weinstein Alex Stoll - by Karen Almond

Steven Michael Walters, Zack Weinstein and Alex Stoll.

Unlike many half-time shows, this one’s relevant: Dance is as central to Colossal as football; it’s a contrasting form of masculine movement and camaraderie. (It’s actually fascinating to watch the performers — some with professional dance backgrounds, some with real football credentials — in the different ways they spin or sprint, lumber or leap.) Mike’s father Damon (Joel Ferrell) directs a famous dance company, and he bitterly berates Mike when the young man skips dance rehearsals for try-outs. Our bodies, Dad declares, are vehicles for language. For him, dance is poetry; football is  — he grabs his throat in a choke hold. Silence, domination, damage, defeat.

Yet Damon’s anger with Mike’s love of football feels odd — or insufficiently grounded. As a straight male dancer in Texas (or at least a bisexual one), Damon would be grimly familiar with ‘sissy’ insults, with anti-gay bigotry, with what it means to stand (and pirouette) against all that many Texans believe is true and manly, violent and American.

That actually makes Damon more likely to understand Mike’s decision: Mike is defying his upbringing, making an ‘unconventional’ choice (at least in his family’s terms). When Damon became a dancer, he did the same thing, albeit in the reverse direction. It is, perhaps, a little presumptuous, a little self-flattering, to believe any artist like Damon would — simply because he’s an artist — be more open-minded about his son’s choice. Yet that actually seems to be true of exposure to art in general.

So let’s say Dad is bitter precisely because he’s had to put up with our alpha-male, Texas football culture his whole life. Mike has joined that side, the side that’s dismissed or simply ignored Damon as inadequately masculine. Such a personal history would certainly provide motivation for Damon’s angry outburst.

Except Hinderaker gives the father no such history. Damon’s anger simply seems too much like a plot device; it comes more or less from out of nowhere.

All of which isn’t to say the scenes between Ferrell as Damon and Weinstein as his wounded son don’t feel moving and real, some of the most affecting in the play. With Mike in a wheelchair, Dad becomes nursemaid and cook. But his diligence only reminds Mike of what he’s lost. For him, even tenderness turns bitter.

That’s because Mike lost more than just muscle control. He lost his love, Marcus. That’s not a plot spoiler; the play’s concern with homoeroticism is pretty plain from the start, although not plain enough for the four people who tromped out during the matinee I attended. They tromped out not when the actors were repeatedly shouting obscenities nor when there was a bit of mock-gay teasing on the field. They tromped out only when Mike and Marcus began some tentative, gay foreplay in a hotel room. So now we know precisely what kind of masculinity offends our four evacuees.

In any event, I won’t reveal how the Mike-Marcus relationship tears apart — except to say that, once again, we’re left with a somewhat deficient motive. Mike welcomes, even revels in, the relationship with Marcus. Marcus is more careful and closeted. Even after former Rams defensive end Michael Sam came out last year (Colossal was written before then), a football prospect revealing he’s gay could damage, possibly wreck his professional career.

DTC's Colossal - smallDrum Line with Cast - by Karen Almond

The drumline in Colossal – with the only woman in the entire show.

This means Marcus has all the motivation in the world to hide his sexuality. But so would Mike. Why, then, is Marcus terrified of ruining his future in the NFL while Mike seems not particularly panicked about the possibility? Is it because Marcus is black — and the black community, historically, has not been very welcoming to out gays? (See Michael Sam’s own troubled relationships with family members.) But that can’t be so because Hinderaker’s script doesn’t specify Marcus’ race; picking Khris Davis to play the role was a casting choice.

So we’re left with one young athlete who’s careless or simply exuberant about his sexuality, while another one is more cautious, more ashamed. OK, that happens. But why?  Why does Marcus respond differently? Once again, we’re given insufficient background to understand what motivates a key figure, a key decision.

Because of Michael Sam’s courage in coming out and because of the NFL’s foot-dragging response to the many brain and spinal traumas among its players, Colossal has a ton of in-the-news currency. But Hinderaker is actually updating a very old story: From Achilles’ wrath over the death of Patroclus to A. E. Housman’s poem ‘To An Athlete Dying Young’ and, especially, that favorite male movie-weepie from 1971, Brian’s Song, it’s the story of a young male champion cut down in his prime (especially a young male champion with a fairly homoerotic-friendly sidekick). All that’s needed is to substitute football for war and paraplegia for death, and we can hear the neo-classic, Greco-Roman echoes across the Wyly’s green gridiron.

But by having Mike survive in a wheelchair, Hinderaker puts a poignant perspective (and twist) on the old tale of loss and glory. From Homer to Housman to ABC’s Movie of the Week, the story of the death of a young warrior/athlete blends the tragic fleetingness of youth with death’s preservation of that peak moment as a memory both aching and splendid. The implication is that life after such triumph (on the playing field or the battlefield) will only fade in luster. Housman even congratulates his heroic runner on dying at just the right moment: “Now you will not swell the rout / Of lads that wore their honors out / Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man.” Brian’s Song wordlessly manages much the same mixed emotion with slo-mo flashbacks of Brian Piccolo (James Caan) at his peak, before cancer claimed him. We mourn what was lost but that pain only amplifies the moment of success and masculine beauty.

It’s the grand, elegiac impulse — to look back in mourning and celebration – and Colossal certainly captures it. But then Hinderaker asks, so now what? What happens if Achilles survives — as a cripple? It’d be easy enough to sentimentalize such a turn: The damaged hero turns to a different heroism, reclaiming his life. One recalls Eddie Dowling – the star and co-director of the premiere of The Glass Menagerie with Margo Jones — trying to convince Tennessee Williams the play’s ending was too bleak. We should see Lara without her leg brace and a title card would flash: “Orthopedics do such wonderful things!”

It’s true Colossal leaves us with Mike returning to his rehab therapy. Recovery and reconciliation are possible. But Hinderaker has him do this only after Mike’s realized his great moment of self-sacrifice wasn’t really witnessed. That’s a very modern, mixed, complex moment. First, it means we and Mike understand something his intended audience never does. Mike’s decision is never fully appreciated. It’s as if raging Achilles avenged the death of his lover, Patroclus — only to be speared by some nobody, and no one really saw any of it go down anyway. Not exactly the hero’s eternal honor he was after.

But second, this also means the young hero isn’t frozen by memory at his moment of glory. He changes drastically and must confront that change. So Colossal isn’t an elegy. Nor is it about love, the acceptance of gay love, football-as-a-metaphor-for-male-interaction, although all those things certainly feature in it. It’s about something that has relatively little to do, really, with young athletes. It’s about growing older and accepting one’s choices, accepting what wretched things life has forced on you.

It’s about growing up.

Full-disclosure postscript: Last April, Bruce Wood of the Bruce Wood Dance Project sent me a copy of the Colossal script. He was going to be the show’s choreographer — his first collaboration with Moriarty and the Dallas Theater Center. He wanted to meet for lunch to discuss the play. For some reason, he thought I’d be a good sounding board — a guy who broke his arm in eighth-grade football and has never endured a full game since, not even on TV. Bruce was cagey about the whole thing, which only made me suspect he had an exciting idea he wanted to spring.

I read the script, texted him about lunch. He didn’t reply immediately — which was not unusual with Bruce. Two weeks later, he was dead.

You may know Bruce was the son of a West Texas football coach. He quit football  — he was simply too small, he said, he was getting stomped out there on the field — and he left Texas to study dance at the School of American Ballet in New York. So Colossal was in Bruce’s bones, physically and emotionally. In fact, when he told me he was going to choreograph it, he wiggled his eyebrows, as if to say, Gonna have some fun with this.

I bring all this up to admit Hinderaker’s play, unavoidably, has a tremendous sense of loss attached to it for me — as I’m sure it does for Moriarty and for people like Harry Feril, a longtime Bruce Wood dancer who’s the show’s dance captain and appears as a football player in it. Whether that biases me for or against Colossal, I don’t know myself. I do know I wanted to ask Bruce about the father-son relationship, whether it rang true for him.

This postscript should also make plain why my review of Colossal inevitably became an analysis of the classic traditions of the elegy, of memorializing the male athlete-hero dying in his glory.

I wish Bruce had never given me my theme.