Epic’s Red Speedo Earns Gold with Fantastic Staging of Muscular New Play

 

While many theaters have the boldness to market their next show as “the theatrical event of the year” it is admittedly more of a rarity when the experience lives up to the hype. Thankfully, in the case of Epic Theatre Company’s site-specific production of Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, the event far exceeds its billing. For me, Epic’s staging of Red Speedo now stands as one of the most engrossing, visceral and vibrant evenings of local theater that I have experienced in years.

Director Vince Petronio has assembled a pitch perfect cast for Hnath’s modern morality tale and wisely let the natural environment and the script do the heavy lifting for the production. From the moment that the handsome and athletic Gunnar Manchester (sporting the play’s titular swimsuit throughout) dives into the pool for practice laps, there is no need for suspension of disbelief – WE BELIEVE. A champion swimmer on the eve of the Olympic tryouts, Manchester’s Ray is the definition of cool, calm, competitive focus. He is literally on the eve of attaining his life’s dream as corporate sponsor Speedo stands ready to sign him for a lucrative contract as soon as he makes the team.

One major hiccup to his plan is that performance enhancing drugs have been found in the locker room fridge. Amid a cloud of suspicion, his lawyer brother is aggressively arguing the case to the team coach that even the slightest whiff of wrongdoing will not only kill Ray’s chances for success, but could take down everyone, including the coach himself. Best for everyone’s interests to keep this whole thing a secret, flush the drugs and keep a unified front. Christopher Crider-Plonka delivers as Peter, a fast talking and slick manipulator, served with a side of street bully. Jay Are Adams portrays Coach with a commanding sense of wisdom that belies his young years, and we are not surprised when he responds to Ray’s thinly veiled threats with a reminder of his moral obligation to report what has happened.

What follows is a gradual unraveling of stereotypes and our initial impressions of each character. Ray admits to his brother that the drugs are, in fact, his. Thanks to his sports therapist ex-girlfriend Lydia (a nicely vulnerable performance by Emma Sacchetti) he has been boosting his testosterone levels sky high for quite a while now and attributes his success in its entirety to “the stuff.” Manchester’s Ray – who admits readily that his talents in the pool are his only bankable abilities – soon emerges as more than a one note “dumb jock.” His ability to manipulate his brother into a corner with the reminder that he alone holds the key to their future financial success hints at the more complex and ruthless player hidden under the façade of brotherly love.

Hnath’s script is a finely wrought ode to ellipses, often an ingenious language unto itself. Seemingly careless and casual, full of half-thoughts and changes of subject, each character in the foursome is soon pushed to breaking and ultimately revealing their own truly fierce natures. Each of them is entangled in the outcome of Ray’s Olympic trial tomorrow and all stand to lose everything if he fails.

Verbal sparring escalates into an almost inevitable physical battle for dominance, culminating in a finely choreographed fight between the two brothers. Thanks to Michael Puppi’s excellent choreography the action moves seamlessly in and out of the water, with the audience sometimes an arms-length away from the actors.

Kudos goes to Epic artistic director Kevin Broccoli on wrangling the ideal location at Pawtucket’s Boys & Girls Club, a move that absolutely makes the play shine. From the moment that I took my seat on the swim center’s unforgiving metal bleachers*, I was instantly transported – the heavily chlorinated scent hanging in the air, the hollow echo from the tall ceilings, the slow sway of the empty pool. To have the luxury of experiencing Hnath’s viciously verbal workout of a play fully staged around (and IN) an actual pool is an unparalleled treat.

Remaining performance are Friday, November 10 and Saturday, November 11 at 8pm. All performances are at the indoor pool at the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket located at 1 Moeller Place, Pawtucket. (*Bring a cushion – you will thank me.) A portion of the proceeds from the show will benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com/event/3118153. Additionally, Epic’s free ticketing program offers no cost admission to high school and college students and members of the military.

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