Monday, March 23, 2015

With Plenty of Punch, 'The Royale' is a Quick Knockout -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Royale
a new play by Marco Ramirez
directed by Jaime Casteneda
American Theater Company, Chicago
Thru March 29

How long should a play be?

The proper answer is probably: As long as it needs to be to most effectively tell the story it aims to tell.

I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's great comment on the length of movies: "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."

The same thought can certainly apply to live theater, where Eugene O'Neill's nearly 5-hour The Iceman Cometh recently earned raves in Brooklyn in a production that originated at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Yet while I greatly enjoyed Robert Falls' 2012 production at Goodman, starring Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane and a wonderful ensemble of Chicago actors, I can't deny being a bit perplexed by the sheer length.

For while a great play--and Iceman Cometh and other O'Neill epics are that--provides more than simple entertainment, a viewer should acutely enjoy seeing it, not feel that they endured it.

And given Chicago weather, traffic, parking costs, train schedules, etc., as well as one's own sleep patterns, attention spans, other matters on one's mind or whatever, devoting at least 6 hours--including transport, perhaps dinner, etc.--to a night of theater is rarely ideal.

Conversely, the fine new play at American Theater Company, The Royale, has a stage time of
approximately 65 minutes--as corroborated by the box office--not even the 75 minutes other reviews have cited.

Which means the time it took to get to and from the theater at Lincoln and Byron was considerably greater than the time spent in it.

Due to dinner plans and other factors, I left my Skokie home at 4:30pm and arrived back at 10:30pm, for a 65-minute play.

But I'm glad I saw The Royale, and in watching it, didn't feel like it needed to be any longer than what it was. It used its time just about perfectly.

Written by Marco Ramirez--who has written episodes of acclaimed TV series Sons of Anarchy and Orange is the New Black--The Royale is a fictionalized boxing drama culled substantially from factual events surrounding Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion.

1n 1910, a white, undefeated former champion named Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson in what was dubbed the "Fight of the Century." When Johnson won, it became a major moment of celebration and pride among African-Americans.

In The Royale, the black champion named Jay Jackson, is powerfully embodied at ATC by Jerod Haynes, who I also found terrific in a 2013 TimeLine production of A Raisin in the Sun.

No actual punches are thrown onstage, and yet two boxing matches are believably acted out, including one in which Jackson takes on a white former champion clearly based on Jeffries.

But rather than overtly focusing on the sociological aspects of Jackson's career and the battle between races at a time when lynchings were common in the south--not far from where the real Jack Johnson lived--The Royale is primarily a propulsive, rhythmic showpiece about the fighter's determination, pride and ego.

Interactions, like quick jabs, take place between Jackson and his manager Wynton (Edwin Lee Gibson), promoter Max (Philip Earl Johnson), sister Nina (Mildred Langford) and an opponent, Fish (Julian Parker).

To tell you much more about the specifics would risk giving away the whole play, in this case somewhat literally.

But even in its brief duration, there is plenty to long appreciate about The Royale, and my mom and aunt also liked it considerably despite never being much in the way of boxing fans.

With crisp writing by Ramirez and excellent performances throughout under the direction of Jaime Castenada, this is a terrific piece of theater that should be well-worth your time--without any real sense of shortchanging it. (Discount tickets may be available on HotTix.) 

That said, just to answer my opening query, my preferred length for a play is 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Or if it needs to be a 2-act piece, 2 hours including intermission often seems about right.

Of course, many of the greatest playwrights ever have deviated greatly from my preferred durations, including--on the long side--for the play I'll review next.

But in The Royale's case, brevity works well. In just 65 minutes it really should knock you out.

Just don't blink too often.

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