This was the first Saturday in a while that I didn’t spend on the couch watching either a boxing or UFC match with my boyfriend. Some Saturdays we get lucky and watch both!
As a “theater person,” I’m not particularly prone to watching sporting events on television. But over the past several months I’ve come to appreciate the brutality, skill and sheer excitement of a good fight.
That’s exactly why Know Theatre’s Girl in the Red Corner was the perfect crossover show for our weekend plans. Written by Stephen Spotswood, it hones in on heroine Halo (Tess Talbot), a tough but caring young woman stuck in the worst rut of her life.
Recently unemployed and fresh off an acrimonious, credit-annihilating divorce, Halo finds an outlet for her frustrations in the form of mixed martial arts (MMA). Stuck living back in her mother’s home, the gym offers the gift of independence and self-satisfaction for a dejected Halo. As her friendship with trainer Gina (Abi Esmena) blossoms, so does the true fighter inside.
This production features some of the best, most realistic fight choreography I have ever seen onstage, particularly when seen up close; Know’s team clearly put a lot of time and energy into getting the fights just right.
But Girl in the Red Corner is so much more than a show about our own personal fights. Sure, Halo has to fight to stick around through the tough times both at home and in her professional life. And her sister Brinn (Mindy Heithaus) has to fight for her marriage, while their mother Terry (Jennifer Joplin) fights for her livelihood. But at its core, Girl in the Red Corner is a show about America’s working class and how each day and choice feels like a fight for survival.
Director Tamara Winters drove this theme home, particularly in her approach to scenes regarding older sister Brinn’s volatile marriage.
Few things can take a stable, loving home environment and flip into something erratic and capricious quite like economic instability. And though I wish Spotswood’s script allowed his characters to show — rather than tell — the audience these complexities, Winters solidly maneuvered this point when it came to engineering tension onstage.
Talbot brings marred grit to heroine Halo. With a deep resolve and hesitant chagrin, there is a subtle complexity to the fighter that lends a necessary reprieve from the “damaged girl” trope. That being said, there are times when those layers lean too strongly toward a stiff refusal to break down emotional barriers, making the moments feel somewhat disjointed.
Esmena’s Gina was the show’s clear breakout. Honest and pithy, her performance was deeply sincere and wonderfully personal. She delivered the natural aura necessary to portray a woman who has been to hell and back but is constantly fighting to stay in the present.
The set, designed by Andrew Hungerford, at first seemed simple, but felt very much like an MMA ring. With a delightfully springy floor, chain-link caging, and stools as the only available seating on set, Know’s space deftly transformed into clean MMA gym.
The production is performed on a thrust stage, which adds to the complexity of the fight choreography and makes the combat scenes all the more impressive. Fight Director k. Jenny Jones worked the complicated angles that come with a show done in thrust — in which the stage extends into the audience on three sides — to the production’s advantage.
The choice of stage also adds more intimacy to an already incredibly intimate performance; it feels like the audience is eavesdropping on this family’s personal business, which is a necessary element to creating a connection with the characters.
Know’s current 2019-2020 season is themed “The Fight," and if Girl in the Red Corner — which kicks things off — is any indication of the rest of the lineup's approach to new and inventive fight choreography, it will prove to be an action-packed look at the art form.
Girl in the Red Corner runs through Aug. 17 at Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine). More info/tickets: knowtheatre.com.