Ah. My home sweet LA theatre home, the Kirk Douglas. Home of new works, one-man/woman shows, off-beat musicals, experimental theatre, lobby activities, post show conversations and cutting edge content. Home of my now-rusty bicycle until I finally bought a car a few years ago. Home of the Douglas Plus: a short week to two week mini run in addition to the regular full-length runs throughout the season. Next stop The Wholehearted, conceived and created by Stein / Holum Projects.
I was intrigued upon hearing about the Kirk Douglas taking on this show, as this originally Brooklyn-based duo of writer/director Deborah Stein and performer/director Suli Holum has a history of specific, thought-provoking stories told through innovative techniques. In The Wholehearted, we are artfully, gradually invited into the gritty aftermath of Dee Crosby, world-class professional boxer, (played by Suli). In this one-woman performance, we learn a much more than you'd expect from a one act about this complex, eccentric, beautiful character. Through a live video testimonial happening before our very eyes, Dee records for her first love, Carmen, her plans to meet with her again. She tells Carmen she plans to somehow take revenge on her husband, Charlie, who allegedly stabbed and shot her in their home years earlier. But now Dee is back in the ring, actually literally living there, camping out in the gym. Charlie has recently been released early of his sentence and although Dee is stronger and quicker than ever, she feels threatened and fearful of returning home. Though flashbacks, video and some incredible country-rock inspired original numbers, we get the idea that going forward, she's not up to dealing with his abuse. Suli did a truly amazing job of transforming into Dee. At the show's inception four years ago, she took on the challenge of training as a boxer. At this stage in the game, she's a boarder-line pro, and the choreography from the original production had to be vamped up for this new run, because now it's too easy for her! You do not want to cross this little muscle, especially in this role. Her ability to vividly portray such an array of characters is astounding. She affectionately convinces you that she's being beaten up, verbally, physically, in the ring, and in the home. Even though she's the only body you're watching on stage.
The use of video in this show draws us closer into Dee's world almost more so than traditional theatre allows, perhaps to convey the evasiveness of the media and how threatening and inhuman it can be towards athletes and celebrities alike. Not to discredit the rest of the production, but the sound effects were my favorite part of the show. I'm usually not that kind of viewer, but the dings of the bell, the swooshes of missed throws, blasts of knockout punches and reaction of the commentators allowed me to close my eyes and feel the stakes of the ring and story. Had there not been a traditional, respectful, rule-abiding audience seated in the round, it would have felt exactly like a real boxing match. However, the people sitting right next to me were "secretly" eating Red Vines. Interesting...
I will admit, this show was not my personal cup of tea. I was impressed with the work of this collective and I appreciate their storytelling style and risks, although I don't think it moved me on a deeply personal level. Not every piece of theatre can do that, and every play will affect various individuals differently. Using song as a storytelling device in this particular narrative did not work for me. I believed her as a boxer; layering on the musical aspect was not effective, to me. I can see how it might be more powerful to people affected by abusive situations or even those more actively involved in the professional fighting circle. And that definitely came though in the few but powerful post show conversations I lead in the lobby, where Suli was gracious enough to join in for each discussion. I definitely want to see more shows by this collective in the future.
The show made me want to learn more about this sport and culture. Not going to lie, I hopped on YouTube to grab a few boxing moves for my back pocket. Of course I was not able to execute them a quarter as well as Suli. She has chops. More importantly, the show raised my awareness of domestic violence. I'm privileged to live in an environment where I assume that everyone is healthy and safe, that everyone is ok. But unfortunately we just can't assume that anymore. The show makes me want to check in more often and hopefully contribute to preventing cases like this, little by little.
The Wholehearted runs December 2-11 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.