Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009

Choking People Onstage

A Strange Rash of Stage Violence.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Somewhere into last night, it occurred to me that I was in Elm Grove watching someone getting choked onstage for the third time in as many months . . .  and I’m certain there are one or two instances of stage choking  I can’t remember. I don’t know if that’s any kind of indicator of it being a particularly violent theatre season or not. And I’m not opposed to staged violence. If there’s a place for physical violence at all its onstage . . . it’s just an odd thing to notice.

The Sunset Playhouse’s Deathtrap is set on another beautiful J. Michael Desper set . . . it’s the office of an author of action-suspense plays on Broadway. There’s an arsenal on the wall—double headed battle-axe, medieval crossbow,  stiletto dagger, a pair of foil,  pair of sabers, a couple of guns including a couple of vintage snub-nose .45 revolvers . . . and somewhere in there there’s a choking scene between two actors.

There’s a mile between really good fight choreography and fight choreography that’s merely suitable. The little physical scuffle that takes place in Renaissance Theaterworks’ The Smell of the Kill (which closes tomorrow) was suitably comic for a really, really well executed comedy. Pink Banana’s recent production of True West  (which closed last night) has a very compelling sense of physical aggression that is really believable up until the choking scene at the end. Less than perfect fight choreography is perfectly acceptable. An audience is very forgiving and willing to bridge the gap and it’s way too easy for things to go wrong, even with people who practice a lot. . . in the current touring Insurgent Theatre show, Ben Turk has strained a lower lip, nearly choked to death and . . . had his feelings hurt. (There’s a regular personal injury report on the show’s blog.

Some of the best stage fighting I’ve seen has been choreographed by Gene Schuldt. He’s responsible for a very believable choking scene in Sunset Playhouse’s Deathtrap. You can tell when an audience is vaguely uncomfortable with the suggestion of violence onstage . . . but when something looks legitimately violent there’s a whole different level of shock in that audience reaction. I’ve seen Schuldt’s fight choreography consistently get that response. Schuldt appeared in a studio theatre production with The Actor’s Guild some time ago . . . there was a drunken brawl in that play that came across with striking clarity. Shuldt’s work in Deathtrap lives-up to that.

Sunset Playhouse’s Deathtrap runs through November 14th. A comprehensive review of the show appears in next week’s Shepherd-Express.

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