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A CurtainUp Review
The Opponent

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses-behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights. — Mohammad Ali
L-R: Guy Van Swearingen and Kamal Angelo Bolden
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The New York premiere of Brett Neveu's The Opponent is a crackling character-driven two-hander about a cocky young fighter, Donell Fuseles (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and Tre Billiford (Guy Van Swearingen), a middle-aged ex-fighter now a small-time trainer. Directed by Karen Kessler, they physically and mentally explore the downs-and-outs of a brutal sport. Kessler keeps the flow action-packed with John Tovar's convincingly authentic fight direction and Neveu's exploration of the mind games and struggling souls.

A tone of grim authenticity inhabits the small space at 59E59 Street Theater. Folding chairs are set up on two sides of an imposing boxing ring in the Rock and Anvil Gym in Lafayette, Louisiana designed by Joey Wade. With just a few feet separating the seats and the ring the play has close to a claustrophobic feel. Overhead lights, concrete gray walls, a spit pail, ropes, speed bags and faded boxing posters make it easy for the audience to be absorbed into 100 minutes of battling intensity. The sound of strenuous jabs and counterpunches, the whip of Donell's jump rope, and the smell of sweat are palpable. The heat of the sparring is evident in the fighters' sweating faces, although the theater turns on air-conditioning for the most physical segments.

Act One highlights Donell, the young upstart, bristling with bravado stopping in at the gym for a final light work-out before a major match. Bolden delivers a persuasive, shaded performance as the likable, light on his feet and fast with his hands boxer. He's cheeky and in top form, and brimming with dreams of luxury, with the biggest and the best cars and houses.

The relationship between the two men is professional, not personal. Tired and deadpan Tre, played by Guy Van Swearingen (formerly a Chicago fire fighter), proves his own boxing know-how in the grueling workout sessions. While Tre boasts about his own past boxing career and the gym's success as a regular stop for notables, he is still reserved about private failures and non-fulfillments. He keeps an arm's length fondness for Donell, but understands the young man's fantasies. Knowing the hard reality that dreams can be dashed to the canvas with one punch, he tells him to "focus on the prize,"

Act Two, moves five years forward. Donell comes by the empty, shabby gym dragging a roll-on suitcase as Tre is washing the canvas. This is their first meeting since the big fight that saw Donell knocked out in the second round. Things have gone downhill for both. Donell is now tired and physically beaten, traveling the road circuit, leaving his a wife and baby daughter at home in Hot Springs. A comeback seems distant but he still has a jaded eye on a future prize.

Tre who believes that "a champion finds his way off the mat" still harbors deep disappointment because Donell did not get up after his knockout. He therefore pretends he does not recognize Donell but after some small talk agrees to give Donell a "tune-up" for an upcoming fight. The charge: $30 an hour, up front.

They begin their reps and with their punches erupt self-deceptions, disillusion and excuses for the failed big fights that were supposed to change their lives. On a deeper level, they also blame themselves. The verbal bantering bobs and weaves of five years earlier sharpen to a hard edge. Self-absorption and past resentments intensify and emotions build. The practice reps evolve into a real fight, gaining electricity and building to heightened passion and a final unexpected explosiveness. Just as Donell was the main event in Act One, Van Swearingen owns Act Two.

The Opponent scores with Kessler's fluid direction, Neveu's focused plot with its windows of psychological insight and knockout creative details — and, of course, the two muscular acting talents, well-trained for strenuous boxing.

Worn, workday costumes by Myron Elliott, Mike Durst's lighting and Joe Court's sound, guarantee an action-packed ringside behind-the-scenes look at the dreams and grueling realties of the small-time boxing world.

The Opponent is the inaugural production from A Red Orchid NYC, created to help Chicago productions move to Manhattan. The company also produced Tracy Letts' Bugs and Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made. Th3 production is paired with New York-based Bisno Productions, producers of this year's Tony-nominated Mothers and Sons and last year's Broadway production of Grace.

The Opponent by Brett Neveu
Director: Karen Kessler
Cast: Kamal Angelo Bolden and Guy Van Swearingen
Set: Joey Wade
Costumes: Myron Elliott
Lighting: Mike Durst
Sound: Joe Court
Fight Director: John Tovar
Running Time: 100 minutes. One intermission
Theatre: 59E59 Theaters. (59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues). 
Tickets: $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to 
Performances: Tues-Thurs at 7:30pm; Fri at 8:30pm; Sat, at 2:30pm, 8:30pm, Sun at 3.30pm.
Previews: 07/31/14 Opens: 08/06/14. Closes: 09/07/14
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 08/03/14
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