Arts Desk

Do the Fight Thing: More on Studio’s Sucker Punch

Sheldon Best & Manny Brown in Studio's SUCKER PUNCH (Scott Suchman)

So I finally got to see Sucker Punch, Studio Theatre’s well-reviewed U.S. premiere of Roy Williams’s race-and-boxing-in-Thatcher’s England play, last weekend. Despite having written a whole feature about the production’s extensive fight choreography, I still found plenty to surprise me in the way the fights were staged.

I won’t review the show; I attended a "preview" performance and, anyway, Trey Graham’s Washington City Paper notice is here. But I’ll say that as with Gavin O’Connor’s great, little-seen fight movie Warrior from last year—for which Nick Nolte got an Oscar nod and Tom Hardy should have—Sucker Punch’s strength lies less in its (largely predictable) tale than in its brilliant execution.

But just to play by Queensbury Rules here, I’ll warn ye: spoilers ahoy.

I opened my piece by talking about the sounds boxing mitts and gloves make on impact. I know this sound well: I’ve worked out with bags, focus mitts, and occasionally a sparring partner for about eight years, and I’ve taught a weekly boxing class for two*. I chose to open my story that way because "live" sound was key to the only one of the play's fight scenes that I had the opportunity to watch in rehearsal, the climactic faceoff between friends-turned-rivals Leon and Troy. It’s the longest fight in the show and the closest thing there is to a full-contact bout. (Several of the matches consist of Leon, the protagonist, performing monologues while boxing unseen opponents whose presence is otherwise suggested through Lindsay Jones’ visceral sound design.)

In the rehearsal room where I watched actors Sheldon Best (who plays Leon) and Emmanuel Brown (Troy) perform their fight, absent theatrical lighting or sound and from a distance equivalent a front-row seat in Studio’s Mead Theatre, those glove-on-glove impacts went a long way toward selling the realism—even though, as I said in my story, a landed punch is usually less noisy than a blocked one.

I understood realism to be the goal in the staging of this, Sucker Punch’s most critical fight. It’s still heavily stylized, but the punches fly much faster here than in the show’s earlier bouts, and there’s considerably more contact. As it's performed in front of an audience in the Mead, the glove hits are mostly drowned out by Jones's soundtrack of recorded impacts and crowd noise.

I attended two rehearsals of this fight scene; Actor’s Equity rules (I was told) limited the time I was allowed to stay at each one.

The Washington Post’s Jessica Goldstein wrote a piece on Sucker Punch’s fight work than ran two days after mine appeared. It’s evident from her article that the rehearsal or rehearsals she observed centered on the racially charged fight earlier in the show between the characters of Tommy and Leon. In that one, actors Lucas Beck and Best (respectively) never touch one another. They face in opposite directions, but their fight is still impressively synchronized: One actor punches the air, there’s a sound cue, and the other’s head snaps back.

“I never for a second want the audience to think they’re watching someone really getting hurt,” fight director Rick Sordelet says in Goldstein’s piece. (I interviewed him, too, along with director Leah C. Gardiner and actors Best and Brown.)

From reading Goldstein’s piece, you’d get the impression that none of Sucker Punch's fights are “realistic”; from mine, you might infer that the majority of them are. Neither of us got the complete story, and thus Studio, whether by luck or by design, was able to gin up audience interest while holding something back for them — and for me—to discover.

Fair play to them for that. The fact that each of Sucker Punch's fights looks and feels so distinct from the others is just more evidence that Sordelet is good at his job.

Tim Treanor’s DC Theater Scene story about Best and Brown’s preparatory boxing regimen is a good piece, too.

Sucker Punch is currently slated to run through April 8 at the Studio Theatre.

*Yes, I write about theater and I teach boxing! I am as unique and inimitable as a snowflake, distinct among fucking snowflakes!**

**A 35-year-old snowflake who lives alone.

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  • Lindsay Jones

    Chris, this is a great point that you bring up and it's one that we discussed a lot throughout the entire process of Sucker Punch. Obviously, you have a great deal of first-hand experience with boxing, but it's probably safe to say that most of the show's audience would not. So, should we point our work towards the greatest realism possible from an audience perspective in order to convey your previous boxing experience, or should we heighten the experience theatrically to place the audience in a position of feeling what the characters in the play are experiencing on a visceral level? In the end, we actually chose to do both: the fight choreography of Rick Sordelet, Gary Kid Stark and Christian Kelly-Sordelet is extremely realistic in its concept and execution, and the design team used that gritty foundation to build, scene-by-scene, a theatrical journey that reflects the adrenaline and endurance that is the professional boxer's internal experience. In my mind, one could not exist without the other. I have the highest regard for Rick Sordelet's work, and like to think that my job was not to "drown out" what he brought to the show, but to complement, heighten and enhance it in the best way possible. Thanks so much for your attention to our work, and I hope to continue this discussion with you some day in person.

    All the best,
    Lindsay Jones
    Sound Designer - Sucker Punch