It’s the halftime show that’s really got game in Andrew Hinderaker’s exhilarating new football play, “Colossal.” The actors portraying grunting college linemen and cornerbacks become, in the 75-minute work’s all-too-brief intermezzo, a dance squad, executing staccato moves as explosively as a receiver completing a down-and-out pattern.
Yes, it does sound a little “Glee”-ish, and no, that is not at all what Hinderaker, director Will Davis or choreographer Christopher D’Amboise have in mind in this bracingly effective world premiere at Olney Theatre Center. This is not “Gridiron, the Musical.” It is, rather, a play finding through the laws of physics a thrilling way to tell a story of exquisite pain.
Performed in a black-box space with audiences seated in grandstands flanking the stage, “Colossal” wastes not a second in its efforts to dramatize that pain, the suffering of a young football star left paralyzed after a bad block. We’re kept apprised of just how precious every moment is — in life, as in a play — by an overhead scoreboard that ticks down the production’s game-simulating four quarters.
And by dividing the role of severely injured Mike between two actors, one playing him as a ripped athlete (Joseph Carlson) before the incident and the other (Michael Patrick Thornton) as a patient in a wheelchair soon after, the playwright is able to draw out the facets of Mike’s psyche, in ways far more complex than one anticipates. For Hinderaker wants us to understand how Mike makes peace with his body by coming to terms with his life, with all of its new limitations, all of its discomfiting desires of old.
“Colossal” is no doubt one of the shorter plays to fill a bill at Olney, and yet it may make the biggest statement of any work there in eons. With this production, artistic director Jason Loewith — former head of the National New Play Network, an important nurturer of the piece — lays out a credible case for Olney stretching in new directions, for carving out a compelling role for itself, beyond the tried and true. We’ll have to see if audiences respond.
With memories fresh of Michael Sam’s experience as a gay player in the NFL, and of articles highlighting the long-term effects of on-field injuries, “Colossal” certainly abounds in social currency. But it’s not the first work to examine gay athletes or the brutal side of big-time sports. The evening, in point of fact, is far more noteworthy for the manner in which it tells its story than for the issues it illuminates.
Davis, D’Amboise and fight and movement choreographer Ben Cunis find in football and dance commensurate intensities that give full expression to the spectrum of Mike’s drives and anguishes. He’s a young man betwixt and between, constantly being jostled and upended by people and feelings. His love of football is a frustrating puzzle to his father (a superb Steve Ochoa), who wants him to stay in the dance company he runs; his love for another player, Marcus (Jon Hudson Odom), becomes a torment to them both. And the mishap that has immobilized him leaves Mike psychologically fragmented, unable to reconcile himself to the loss of a former identity or begin to assemble a new one.
The play’s rigorous physicality begins with the drills that Mike and his teammates run, as audience members find their seats. To the sound of a thunderous, percussive score, and the orders of their cold-eyed coach (KenYatta Rogers), the young men, in helmets and exposed shoulder pads, spring to action. That the foundation of other competing narratives is being laid is first suggested when Ochoa — who we later learn plays Mike’s father — runs a few drills, too, shadowing them in street clothes.
All through the ensuing scenes, of younger Mike’s football interactions, of older Mike’s sessions with a physical therapist (James Whalen), the textures of Mike’s personality and sexuality are revealed in telling gestures. (One narrative deficit: It’s left rather blurry, the age lapse between the two Mikes.) It takes only one fleet, delicate caress of Marcus’s shoulder by Mike during a yoga exercise to establish their dangerous, budding intimacy.
D’Amboise, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, brings to a breathless fusion in the halftime segment the worlds that younger Mike has traversed, first through a unison dance by the players and then, in a splendid pas de deux between Carlson and Ochoa. The interlude will be affectingly mirrored at the end of the play, in a beautiful reiteration signaling the older Mike’s halting attempt, in a real sense, to move on.
The beauty of bodies in motion provides “Colossal” with an aesthetic power that informs the entire evening. And as represented most vibrantly by Carlson as the younger Mike, and most poignantly by Thornton as older Mike, there is a fierceness of commitment in this cast that lends credence to the play’s title. For this gratifyingly high level of unity and spirit, everyone involved deserves the game ball.
by Andrew Hinderaker. Directed by Will Davis. Choreography, Christopher D’Amboise; fight and movement choreography, Ben Cunis; set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Christopher Baine. With Sam Faria, Will Hayes, Jeff Kirkman III, Michael Litchfield, Matthew Ward. About 75 minutes. Tickets, $48.50-$68.50. Through Sept. 28 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Visit www.olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.