Lucas Beck and Sheldon Best are standing back-to-back smack in the center of a square marked in neon yellow tape on the floor during a rehearsal for “Sucker Punch” at Studio Theatre the week before opening night.
Inside the square, it is 1980s London. The British race riots rage around Leon, played by Sheldon, a black teenage vandal-turned-athlete set on winning the world welterweight championship, and Lucas’s Tommy, an accomplished amateur boxer.
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.”
* * *
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.
He understands this, he says, but “a lot of my colleagues don’t even know that’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”
But Sordelet isn’t like a lot of his colleagues. Sordelet doesn’t really have peers, technically speaking. Ask him if there’s anybody out there who does what he does at the level at which he does it, and he’ll tell you: “Nobody.”
When he landed his first Broadway job, doing fight choreography for “Beauty and the Beast” in 1994, he said, “I remember making a pact to myself that this was what I was going to do. I will be the best fight choreographer in the nation.”
He offers his résumé as proof that he’s done exactly that. “I’ve done 53 shows on Broadway. No one’s even come close to that. I’ve been working consistently since 1993.”
In addition to his Broadway cred, he’s worked in film, television and opera. His work as the fight director of the 1995 “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” halftime show for Super Bowl XXIX was seen by 83.42 million people.
Getting the New York-based Sordelet to work on “Sucker Punch” was “a real coup on my part,” Gardiner said. She and British playwrightRoy Williams have been friends for 10 years. Studio originally planned on hiring a dance choreographer with fight experience. When that individual had another work opportunity, Gardiner was “lobbying and praying” for Sordelet to step in. “I really felt obliged to my friend . . . to make sure I could get the cream of the crop in the States with him for his U.S. premiere. And as fate would have it, I did.”
Sordelet, she said, “is, by far, one of the best in the country, if not the best.”
The reason is simple. “Because the fights that he creates are stories.”
“I was coming in learning [boxing] from scratch,” Sheldon said. He, along with the other cast members who box, trained for 21 / 2 weeks in New York with Sordelet and Gary Stark Jr., the boxing consultant.
“What I love about Rick’s style is that he listens to the instincts of his actors very much, and he trusts them as much as he trusts his own instincts,” Sheldon said. “And he was always interested in what story we’re telling and how each fight . . . had to fit in its place in the story.”
For “Sucker Punch,” Sordelet crafted eight fight scenes. “The challenge was to make each fight completely and utterly iconic unto itself,” he said. “If you were talking about it to your friends, there’d be no confusion as to which fight was where.”
None of these fights, Sordelet says, relies on shock value. The social contract between actor and audience implies that everyone knows the violence is safe by design, as fake as the kisses and the tears and the deaths that happen onstage. He has no interest in violating that trust.
“I never for a second want the audience to think they’re watching someone really getting hurt,” he said. “If your intent is to gross out the audience, then you’ve robbed the story.”
* * *
At Studio, the battle rages on in the imaginary ring.
“I’m ain’t stopping for nothing!” Sheldon shouts. Lucas appears winded. He’s losing now, no question. Only a matter of time.
“What’s that now, Tommy?” Sheldon throws a few more jabs in the air. Across the way, Lucas throws his head to the side, then buckles at the waist. “You’re not losing to a black man?” Then, each word punctuated with a punch: “This! Black! Man! Here!”
One more blow to the body, and Lucas is sprawled out on the floor, arms outstretched, looking dazed and confused. If he were a cartoon character, tiny animated birds would be flying in circles around his head.
“Oh yeah! How do you like that?” Sheldon steps airily over Lucas’s body as though gravity has no grasp on him. It’s the first time the two have come even close to touching in the entire scene.
Sordelet has to hold himself back from describing the other boxing matches. “I want to tell you about one fight,” he says, “but if I do, I’ll blow the surprise.”
Meanwhile Lucas is back on his feet, swapping one set of gloves for another. Sheldon is bouncing on his toes, shifting his weight from one high-top sneaker to the other. They never stop moving.
“I don’t think they feel good unless they’ve been sweating buckets,” Sordelet says.
Right now, it looks as though he wasn’t kidding, because the water break is over in minutes, and the actors are already heading to their corners, leaning against the ropes that aren’t there, ready for the next round.
Through April 8 at Studio Theatre,
1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org .