‘Colossal’ at Olney Theatre Center

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In his curtain speech prior to the opening night performance of Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal at Olney Theatre Center, Artistic Director Jason Loewith mentioned ‘past, present, and future,’ and that tonight’s performance would focus on these three things. Loewith was absolutely correct, because at the core of Hinderaker’s emotionally gripping and corporeally inspiring play is the idea that one’s past, present, and future are inherently connected and our opinion of one naturally affects our opinion of the other two.

Marcus (Jon Hudson Odom) and the Players await the next play in Olney Theatre Center's production of 'Colossal.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

Marcus (Jon Hudson Odom) and the Players await the next play in Olney Theatre Center’s production of ‘Colossal.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

As the audience filled into the space, Coach, played with triumphant force by KenYatta Rogers, leads the team through a number of football drills and warm-ups. It was clear from the start that the team comprised of Joseph Carlson (Young Mike), Jon Hudson Odom (Marcus), and players Sam Faria, Will Hayes, Jeff Kirkman III, Michael Litchfield, and Matthew Ward were physical forces to be reckoned with, and were going to give one another one hundred and ten percent of their energy to see this performance to the end. Their energy, awareness of each other in the space, and physical prowess elevated this piece. While a seven-person football team may be less than is traditional, this ensemble of men performed in a way that made it feel like they were far mightier in number.

As the football team warmed up, Damon, who we would later learn is Mike’s dad, ran through a traditional modern dance warm-up. The beauty in the two images coexisting simultaneously but each unaware of the other is that every once and a while, Ochoa would move through the space performing the dance equivalent of the football drill, creating a unique duet of the two world the play so expertly inhabits. The musical score for this pre-show warm-up is masterfully composed by Chris Baine, in that it perfectly encapsulates the modern dance experience, with its detailed rhythmic drumming, and also incorporates the drum line sound synonymous with football games. The audience is equipped with the movement vocabularies of two seemingly mutually exclusive events, and prepared for the journey ahead of them.

At the core of Colossal is the story of Mike, authentically portrayed by Michael Patrick Thornton. Mike is the son of a modern dancer/choreographer named Damon, beautifully danced and acted by Steve Ochoa. Hinderaker’s play allows us to experience two versions of Mike simultaneously, in that we are also privy to his younger self in Young Mike, performed with adroit physicality, boundless energy, and honest vulnerability by Joe Carlson. With the mirror acting as a steady motif throughout, the image of Mike and Young Mike coexisting in the same psychological landscape makes for a palpable struggle throughout the piece. Young Mike struggles with his identity as a homosexual, an athlete, and a dancer, and the ways in which that masculinity does or does not play into these three aspects of his identity. In the present, Mike is struggling to accept the adjustments being confined to a wheelchair will make on his life. He is not at peace with the events that transpired and brought him here, and he is having trouble applying his athletic drive and determination to his future, and is instead using said drive and determination to fixate on his past, but only the moments leading up to his accident. What unfolds is a psychologically wrought, physically exhausting (in a great way), and emotionally riveting play, set up in the structure of a football game.

The strong movement moments in the play, from the visually rich choreographed half-time dance by Christopher D’Amboise to the visceral movement/fight choreographed sections created by Ben Cunis, illuminate the team aspects of both football and dance. Hinderaker offsets these moments with stunning two-person scenes, those of note being between Carlson’s Young Mike and Odom’s Marcus, Thornton’s Mike and James Whalen’s Jerry, and Thornton’s Mike and Ochoa’s Damon. In these scenes, we are able to see the love that transpires and suddenly falls flat between Young Mike and Marcus, the love of dance and the rift that Young Mike’s departure from that world causes between him and Damon, and the lack of trust and of his former self that creates a palpable divide between Mike and his occupational/physical therapist Jerry.

The chemistry between Carlson and Odom is palpable, and Odom’s performance of stereotypical masculinity allows the audience to witness the strikingly honest vulnerability in Carlson’s Young Mike. The scenes between these two and the tempestuous ups and downs in their relationship illuminates that emotions are genderless and Carlson’s vulnerability came across as more masculine than Odom’s machismo. The chemistry between Thornton and Ochoa is strained, as their relationship heads south the minute Mike gives up dance for football, but their beautiful dance at the end of the show, when Thornton relies on Ochoa’s paternal strength to help him stand brought tears to my eyes. The honesty in the silence of that moment couldn’t have been any better, and the return of two dancers to the barre, a place sacred to dancers, and for it to be used as a part of his physical rehabilitation is inspired. Finally, the verbal tête-à-tête between Thornton and Whalen is remarkable. Whalen’s dry wit in his sparring with Thornton is stealthy, and illuminates that the fighting nature ever present in Carlson’s Young Mike is still buried inside of Thornton’s Mike. Whalen’s character, also a homosexual, is an effortlessly masculine figure without putting on airs, and I believe that Mike finds solace in this even though he doesn’t fully trust him.

Young Mike (Joseph Carlson) tries to keep Mike (Michael Patrick Thornton) from moving forward in his physical therapy sessions with Jerry (James Whalen).  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Young Mike (Joseph Carlson) tries to keep Mike (Michael Patrick Thornton) from moving forward in his physical therapy sessions with Jerry (James Whalen). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Hinderaker’s masterful work is brought to light by a stellar team of artists and designers. Director Will Davis’ vision feels happily married to the text and his eye for movement and bodies in space during scene work allows for beautiful transition into and out of choreographed moments. Misha Kachman’s scenic design allows the audience’s eyes to have multiple vantage points into the various moments of the play, and his scoreboard perfectly illuminates that dancers and athletes are up against a clock when it comes to reaching the breaking points of their bodies. Ivania Stack’s costumes beautifully hug the male figures in this piece, illuminating that dancers and athletes use their bodies as vessels. Colin K. Bills’ lighting design is stunning, and his cues for video footage versus live moments, and ability to illuminate multiple psychological landscapes is truly magical.

Hinderaker’s play, a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, is visually stimulating, as well as emotionally and physically exhausting in the most cathartic way. Colossal brought up a number of questions for me, including but not limited to: What is the cost of love of football, or dance, or of another man? Why is it so hard for us to cause the impetus for physical or societal change, when it feels so good once that change has been set into motion?

If you are looking for an exciting new work to engage with for an evening, with a handful of powerful messages to latch onto, and a number of awe-inspiring choreographed sequences, then look no further than Colossal at Olney Theatre Center.

Running Time: One hour and fifteen minutes, with no intermission.

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Colossal plays though Sunday, September 28, 2014 at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at  (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

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