Rick Sordelet, the fight director, makes a few minor adjustments and then steps to the side to watch. He watches Lucas and Sheldon hurl racial slurs at each other, watches Lucas kneel and cross himself in preparation to fight, watches Sheldon flex his muscles in anticipation.
Chances are you’re familiar with the 52-year-old Sordelet’s work even if you’ve never heard his name. Been to “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King” on Broadway? Sordelet. Maybe “Urinetown” or the 2003 revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”? Sordelet. Catch the national tour of “Les Miserables”? Sordelet. See any of the stunts on “Guiding Light”? Probably Sordelet, too; he was chief stunt coordinator for 12 years and worked on more than 1,000 episodes.
Still, he says that with “Sucker Punch,” he’s pushing himself beyond everything he knows. “My 30 years of experience is being challenged with this play,” he said. “We are inventing stuff on a daily basis that nobody’s ever done.”
Now he is overseeing the rehearsal of what he calls “the most complicated of any fight” in the show. Lucas and Sheldon are in their places, shoulder blades pressed against shoulder blades, waiting for the bell.
Director Leah C. Gardiner makes the sound: “Ding, ding, ding!”
Lucas and Sheldon take a few strides to opposite corners of the ring and start throwing jabs at the air. At first, it just looks as if they’re sparring with ghosts, duking it out with imaginary foes. But get both of them in your field of view, and you see each hit from one man produces an equal and opposite reaction in the other.
Lucas punches with his right hand, and Sheldon’s head spins to the side like his left cheek just got clobbered. Sheldon strikes back, and Lucas groans uhhs and owws and huhs.
It is both hyper-realistic and obviously fake, authentic boxing moves in staged circumstances. The stylized nonfighting fighting is a big gamble: The audience has to buy a ticket to the mirage and not ask for a refund halfway through.
“It has to be lined up exactly right, because there’s no contact,” Sordelet explained. “Otherwise, the illusion won’t work.”
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The first thing to know about a fight scene is that it’s not a fight scene.
Sordelet describes his work as constructing “physical dialogue.” It’s a collaborative effort — a director’s vision, a choreographer’s design, an actor’s execution, an audience’s willingness to believe — whose purpose must be plot progression. A fight that fails to do this, to transport the scene from one point to the next on a narrative arc while reflecting the complexity of the characters involved, is a fight that fails, period. It’s the theatrical equivalent of running on a treadmill: a whole lot of action that takes you nowhere.