Arts Desk

Ring of Truth: In Studio Theatre’s Sucker Punch, the Sweet Science Is an Art

One of Hollywood’s most resilient little lies is that the collision of fist on flesh makes a loud noise. When John Wayne was doing the slugging, it was like a door slam. But when you train as a boxer, punches are loud only because you’re hitting a leather bag or leather mitts with leather gloves—a drum beating a drum, basically. Punching a person is usually quieter.

If you’re an actor pretending to be a boxer pretending to fight another pretend boxer, those leather-on-leather impacts are your ally. The dull thud of a hit to the body. The percussive glove-meets-glove crack! that stands in for a successful head shot. These sounds are close enough to the exaggerated reports movies have taught us to associate with gloves-off fisticuffs that onstage, what is actually a blocked punch—because it found leather, arm, or elbow instead of rib, belly, jaw, or eye—easily plays the role of one that lands.

Thud, wump, crack.

The pattern of impacts echoes through a third-floor rehearsal room at Studio Theatre, fast and convincing. It’s 12 days before the company’s first preview of Sucker Punch, a race-relations boxing drama set in Margaret Thatcher’s England. A London hit in 2010, the play makes its U.S. debut at Studio this weekend.

Roy Williams’ script sketches most of its fights lightly, using only few words of stage direction. Not until the climactic bout does the 44-year-old British playwright offer a round-by-round prescription of how goes the war. “Troy lands a strong left hook, followed by a right,” one of them reads. “Leon is breathing heavily.”

Translating that clipped prose into sequences of blows and evasive moves—a pugnacious dance that the play’s stars will perform 42 times for an audience (more, if the show is a hit) and hundreds of times in rehearsals—is the role of the fight director.

It isn’t so much a tough job as it is several. He must build a progression of moves that suits the character and advances the story in a tonally appropriate way. He must tailor those sequences for the space where the play is being staged. If the show has multiple fights, he must make them distinct enough to stave off audience "battle fatigue". Finally, he must make sure the actors perform the bouts credibly enough to give the audience a pulse-quickening illusion of danger while keeping one another safe.

Despite being a key player on a piece like this one—director Leah C. Gardiner likens Sucker Punch’s combat quotient to that of one of the fightier Shakespeares—it’s an undervalued profession. There are Tony Awards (and Helen Hayes Awards) for excellence in choreography, sets, costumes, lighting, and sound, but not for fight direction.

That doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, nor does it, unsurprisingly, to Rick Sordelet, who created the fights for Sucker Punch. (I suspect I’m not the first person to point out he has the word “sword” in his name. That’s like being an actor named Javier Motivation.) In fact, he is a trained thespian. He earned an MFA from Rutgers University and plied that trade along with fight work before his first big Broadway gig—fight-directing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 1993 and 1994—convinced him to focus on fight work full-time.

On Mondays, Sordelet teaches stage combat at the Yale School of Drama. He knew David Muse, now Studio’s artistic director, when Muse was a student there, and he did the fights for the director’s Julius Caesar at Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2008.

Sordelet lives in New Jersey and mostly works in New York—his Internet Broadway Database page lists nearly 50 credits—but he’s done shows on four continents. He and his 23-year-old filmmaker son collaborated on Ben Hur Live, a stage show in Rome featuring more than 300 actors and four teams of horse-drawn chariots. And more than 80 million pairs of eyeballs saw the halftime show he fight-directed for Super Bowl XXIX at Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium in 1995, a scenario that commingled Indiana Jones’ quest to retrieve the Vince Lombardi trophy from the Temple of the Forbidden Eye with musical performances by Tony Bennett, Patti LaBelle, and the Miami Sound Machine.

Studio’s 200-seat Mead Theatre is considerably cozier. It’s a thrust stage, meaning seats on three sides; for Sucker Punch, scenic designer Dan Conway has placed a mirror behind the ropeless “boxing ring.” “I’m in a 360-degree vision situation, and I have to fool every eye in the house as best I can,” Sordelet says. “That’s the trick.”

It doesn’t take long to see why actors like Sordelet. He shares their vocabulary, speaking in a soft, consoling voice that belies his solid, 52-year-old physique.

Maybe it’s because the section of Sucker Punch’s most elaborate fight that I’m watching already looks up to snuff—even from my spot on the floor just inches from the tape-on-carpet box where the actors rehearse. Sordelet seems most concerned with the actors’ comfort and safety. “How does that feel on your wind?” he asks the guys as they rip away the Velcro fasteners on their training gloves to break for lunch.

Sordelet and I head downstairs to talk. He silences his buzzing phone at least a dozen times during our 45-minute interview. It doesn’t seem obvious that a man in his line would be perennially in demand until you start trying to think of plays that don’t have any fights.

Take Yasmina Reza’s comedy Art, a play Sordelet likes so much he’s seen it five times. When he was up for a job on it, the producers said he was overqualified. “It has one little fight, with one punch, but that punch sets up a three-page monologue,” Sordelet says. “If it looks like ass, I’m out.”

I can understand Sordelet’s perfectionism. But theater audiences, in my view, are generally more conscious of their decision to suspend disbelief than film crowds are. After all, they’re in the same room as the actors—partners in the lottery of live performance. I’ll buy a sloppy punch in Art, because that play is about three middle-aged guys who probably don’t get into fistfights much.

But in Sucker Punch—like another play Sordelet brings up, Clifford OdetsGolden Boy—if the boxing doesn’t work, the whole thing will seem phony. It doesn’t have to be realistic, but it needs to be credible.

Here, the reptilian part of our brains acts as a built-in bullshit detector. “We’re a violent species,” Sordelet says intensely. “Conflict is drama, and we tend to resolve most of our conflicts violently.”

Playing the parts of Leon and Troy, the young fighters whose friendship is tested by the times, are two New York actors, Sheldon Best and Emmanuel Brown. Brown has nearly 20 years of experience in a variety of fighting styles; he’s taught martial arts and worked as a fight choreographer himself. Best has less formal stage-combat training, but he’s played a fighter before: His first off-Broadway gig was in a show called Soul Samurai in 2009. Best had 13 fights.

To tutor the actors in the Sweet Science, Sordelet tapped Gary “Kid” Stark Jr., a boxer (23-3, most recently as a super featherweight) he knew from Stark’s occasional work as a grip on Guiding Light. (Sordelet was the TV soap’s stunt coordinator for 12 years.)

Besides teaching them boxing mechanics, Stark helped each actor tailor his fighting to his character. Best’s character, Leon, is the gentler of the pair. He uses a flashy “shuffle” to stoke the crowd and goad his opponents. Stark told Best to watch clips of Sugar Ray Leonard. To develop Troy’s more brutal style, Stark suggested Brown look at Mike Tyson and Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns. (The script mentions that Troy worked as Hearns’ sparring partner.)

Both actors have kept up a conditioning regimen in addition to their boxing. “I’ve been burning through food like a jet engine,” Best says. That’s all on top of the scene work that goes into any play.

Not that seam-bursting workdays are anything new. Brown was in a little show called Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (as Spider-Man, among other roles) when he started training with Stark and Best in mid-January. Some days he’d work out with Stark then suit up for two performances.

Best, meanwhile, was shooting an episode of Persons of Interest. They met as often as they could outside the gym to work on their South London dialects. Because the script calls for Leon to deliver monologues while fighting unseen opponents, Best had to learn his lines unusually early in the rehearsal process. You can’t read from your script while pretending to box.

Sordelet has given each piece of Sucker Punch’s choreography a name. Some are simple descriptors (“Spaghetti Knees,” “Sloppy Clinch”) while others honor their inspirations: “Ali,” for example, and “Gary Stark.”

At the top of each round, he calls out the name of the sequence, and the actors go. Sordelet films them with his phone. Thud, wump, crack. At the end of one round, they segue effortlessly into slow motion.

When I come back to Studio five days later, construction on Sucker Punch’s set is in full swing. I can smell the blood-red paint drying on the Mead stage. A speed bag is already hung, stage right; a heavy bag is slumped against a wall near the exit.

Up on the third floor, Best has traded in the bag gloves he used last week for a pair of white Lonsdales. “How do you like those gloves?” Sordelet asks him.

“I love them,” Best says.

“They seem like they fit better,” says Sordelet. “I could tell the other ones were too big.”

Gardiner, the play’s director, watches Best and Brown perform their fight. When they finish, Brown, the martial artist, casually drops into a side-splits on the floor for a breather.

Gardiner and Sordelet are working out exactly how communicate a time-lapse effect. Gardiner wants the audience to see “snapshots” from each round. There’s also a particular design element—I’m not saying what it is—that she wants to deploy earlier in the fight, while Sordelet says it’ll be more dramatic if she holds it back until later. “You’re not going to get the buy you’re looking for,” he tells her.

It’s all very even-tempered and professional, but it’s plain that the director and the fight director are not seeing eye-to-eye on this. Two days later, Gardiner will tell me she was working out how to apply the right emotional shading to the exchange of blows that’s been learned and practiced so carefully. That’s not to suggest Sordelet approaches his job as a mere craftsman—he’s attuned to the scene’s emotional intent and pitch, too.

Eventually, Gardiner and Sordelet reach a point of détente, acknowledging that it’s all going to look different downstairs when the set is complete, so they’ll have to wait until they can try it both ways. Ultimately, it’s Gardiner’s call.

Best and Brown stand up and go again. Thud. Thud. They’re both sweating now.

When it’s time for Best to deliver his big right cross, Brown’s hand isn’t quite in position to catch it. “Ooooooooh,” Brown whistles, a second after Best’s gloved fist glides just past his eye.

“I pulled, I pulled,” Best reassures him.

Sordelet jumps in with an impromptu pep talk. “This is exactly what all that training was for,” he says. “We’re throwing lots of shit at you. There’s a weird tension in the room. We’re moving, you guys are all over the fucking place… [but] no one is hitting each other. That’s why we spent so much time at the gym. I’m so proud of both of you. You guys are doing everything we’re asking. It’s great.”

“We are a fam-uh-leeeeeeee,” Best sings. Then he and Brown get right back into it, landing shots on one another that sound like bombs.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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