by Carole di Tosti
Square Go, presented by Francesca Moody Productions in association with Seared Productions, is a wild ride through adolescent angst, self-hatred, inferiority and macho stereotypes. In its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters the production is an offering in their Brits Off Broadway season.
With mayhem and riotous gamesmanship, Square Go examines the 21st century equivalent of the young man’s rite of passage into manhood. During the violent inner dance between cowardice, heroism and determination not to cave in and run from the “square go,” the combatant learns what he is made of and what he can endure. Written by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair, the director Finn Den Hertog employs a “square space” as the field of battle upon which the physicality and high energy of two “teens” spills out with brutality and aggression.
Max (Daniel Portman) and his “mate” Stevie (Gavin Jon Wright) are near the bottom rung of the social ladder in Hammerston High School, an average school in Scotland. At the outset of the play Max attempts to pump up his stamina, will and fighting strength by rallying the audience to back him in a competitive match in which he will need all the support he can receive against his dire opponent. As the plot develops and his mate Stevie joins him—and they discuss the circumstances with humor, macho insults and assertions—we understand that Max’s imagination has overblown a confrontation he will face in one hour with the pre-eminent bully of the school, Danny Guthrie.
Max casts himself in heroic terms, selecting his mate Stevie as his coach against the manly, cruel Guthrie. The humor is that his pal Stevie, to build him up for this fight with the beast, attempts to stir up Max to feel like a weak, unmanly loser. The strategy is clever. Max must defend himself in this pre-fight contest to best Stevie’s insults and “playful” pummeling in order to wire himself and throw off all fears before taking on Guthrie. The playwrights withhold information about the mundane aspects of the situation . . . which any adult would view as ridiculous. Instead, they cast the confrontation as a contest, an epic battle (which from Max’s perspective it is) because emotionally, his being and identity as a “manly man” are on the line.
During Stevie’s prepping Max for this “square go,” we learn that this is not only a battle, but that the metaphor represents a challenge the individual faces against himself; it defines his ethos and being for the rest of his life. Humorous equivalents are suggested for those in history who have had their “square go.” Jesus Christ is one such example.
As the countdown narrows until Max engages in this “galactic” battle and the tension builds, the playwrights flash back periodically to reveal the truth about how and why Max stands with his friend in the boy’s bathroom, readying himself mentally and physically to buck up and face the thrashing he may or may not receive from Guthrie. Clearly, if Max can only conquer his fears and insecurities and calm his imagination, he just may win.
As the minutes tick down the hour, the inner conflicts within Max and the aggression Stevie holds against him (an irony considering he is supposed to be his mate) explodes in a vibrance of action. Eventually, through well-conceived dynamic flashbacks that avoid exposition, we arrive at the initial incident that turned Guthrie’s hatred and rage against Max. Max’s perception about Guthrie, who seems like Goliath, seizes upon a weakness. Guthrie is intensely human and horrifically sad. Understanding this, Max moves through his personal sturm und drang and physical trials with Stevie and receives enlightenment and wisdom which he shares with Stevie.
Using lighting (Peter Small) a few props (backpack, head mask, microphone, a chair) an original sound track (members of Frightened Rabbit) and superb staging and fight movement (Viki Manderson) this lightning-fast, audience interactive, hour-long show thrills and delights. It also surprises. What initially appears to be two wankers releasing their own physical tensions, transforms with themes about bullying, working out one’s fears through play, and understanding that even the most craven adversaries are broken people whose cruelty is a cry for help. Den Hertog’s direction of Portman and Wright, whose physicality and passion are stunning, remains the linchpin of the production.
Square Go. Through June 30 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park). www.59e59.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg