|Ardon Bess as Joe Louis (Photo courtesy of Infinitheatre)
Infinitheatre's production of David Sherman's new play, Joe Louis: An American Romance, which opened tonight, is a perfect symbol of Montreal English-language theatre. It is at once quite thrilling and profoundly dismaying.
The central problem of the evening was that, simply, this was not a play ready to be produced—but produced it was in a pretty but, very often, awkward presentation directed by Guy Sprung. Again, simply, Sprung and his large cast did not know what to do with this play in this space. Elements of the evening—for instance, the beautifully staged interplay of actor and archival film—simply underlined what had gone missing in the rest of the evening: pace. There were very long moments of talking which had to be filled as well and everyone seemed to be at their wits' end as to how to do this because that talking was...well...unscintillating.
We know all this. We know Louis the symbol...
This is the story of the magnificent African-American boxer who become an icon: his life showed both blacks and whites around the world that it was no longer a white man's world—that there was hope for the future. Never was this message that was Joe Louis' life more eloquently posited then when he pummeled Max Schmeling, Germany's great white hope.
We know all this. We know Louis the symbol. The play, however, decided to share with us a look at the man and that is a noble intention but the structure of the play does not allow this to work. The play has Louis going toe-to-toe (so to speak) with a female IRS auditor in 1980s Vegas. As they spar over what he owes the taxman, we flash-back to Louis' career, his women, his life. This might have worked as a structure except...
I'm not interested in an evening of dueling victims, thanks much...
Well, the IRS woman is a feminist and suddenly we are comparing Louis' ride through Jim Crow America to the lot of women in the 80s. Sorry, but I don't care! I'm not interested in an evening of dueling victimes—thanks much—and, into the bargain, the female victim is not at all interesting. She feels like an add-on. A conceit, in every sense of the word. Worse, as Louis continues to play the very valid race card with her, she comes out with a line about rusty wire hangers (back-street abortionists' favourite tool) and I almost screamed, "Have I wandered into another play?"
Or, perhaps, it was the right play but, again, it simply wasn't finished. What was meant to be the focus of the work's 90 minutes? Black vs. white? America vs. the rising tide of German National Socialism? Women vs. men? A game of who's suffered more? All that was missing was a Gay Schmeling and we could have had a grand old sob-fest! The playwright and, ultimately, the director have to decide what is this play's raison d'être.
Ardon Bess is a towering presence
However, veteran actor Ardon Bess, as Old Joe, is a towering presence and dominates all of the scenes in which he appears. For sheer, physical beauty Samuel Platel also fills the stage and looks every inch the pugilist (even when stripped to boxers). Tristan D. Lalla gives a performance—as Louis' ringman and Duke Elligton—which rumbles across the stage and Scott Kettles, as Old Schmeling, shares a scene with Bess which just makes one sigh at what this play and production might have been; they sit together and narrate an archival clip of the actual historic fight and it is a little gem of simplicity.
The designers nearly conquered this very difficult venue (an old municipal swimming pool), but James Lavoie's boxing ring was too noisy and the comings and goings of the many characters drew attention to much of the evening's aimlessness. David-Alexandre Chabot's lighting was lucid though he was definitely stymied, sometimes, by the in-the-round layout and so could not offer the necessary intimacy to many scenes. Veronica Classen's costumes were stylish and Tom Fennario's video work solid.
Finally, however, this is a production full of promise which now, as it is, ambles instead of sprints.
Joe Louis: An American Romance is at Infinitheatre.