Before I knew anything about Girl in the Red Corner, a play running through March 2 in an upstairs studio at the Den Theatre in Wicker Park, I thought it might be about communism, a female spy backed into a metaphorical corner in Moscow or something. That could be an interesting show, but, as it turns out, that’s not at all what Broken Nose Theatre’s production of this Stephen Spotswood play is about. Which is probably for the best, as what it is about—a newly divorced, working-class woman who finds purpose and a sense of self in mixed martial arts training—is ultimately much more interesting.
Presented in a snug studio where a few rows of seats line either side of a space decked out to look like a very intense gym (chainlink fencing lines the walls, mats fill the stage area and posters promoting female MMA fights are everywhere), a tight cast of just five people (three of whom play multiple roles) delivers an often intensely emotional (and surprisingly funny) story of family, personal growth and finding meaning in a seemingly never-ending repetition of days that, if we’re not careful, don’t add up to much. Director Elizabeth Laidlaw pulls together a show that isn’t perfect, but even in its weakest moments still has something to say.
Halo (Broken Nose’s artistic director Elise Marie Davis) welcomes us with some thoughts on fighting and how she got her name, being such a well-behaved kid. We learn she more than made up for it as a rebellious teenager, but the nickname stuck. As we meet her, she’s freshly divorced and walking into the gym for the first time in response to a flyer about training as an MMA fighter. Turns out it’s Gina (August N. Forman), herself a champion fighter, who’s doing the training, and they’re not convinced Halo has what it takes to “make it on the mat,” as they say. But Halo’s determined to find something for herself, as the rest of her life seems to be going off the rails. She’s living with her alcoholic mom (Michelle Courvais), a cashier at a local convenience store whose hours keep getting cut, and her older sister Brinn (Kim Boler) is juggling a rocky marriage to well-meaning Warren (Mark West) while raising a rebellious teenager of her own (who we never actually meet).
Running just over an hour and a half with one intermission, we do eventually get to the fighting, and it’s a solid bit of theater when we do. Fight coordinator John Tovar has choreographed compelling confrontations, some sections even played out in “slow motion” for particularly dramatic effect. But in the end, the show with a title referencing a fighting ring is about so much more than fisticuffs. It’s Halo we care about (thanks to Davis’s infusion of vulnerability, frustration and outright determination), whether she’ll get through the rough patch she’s navigating and whether the people she cares about will still be there when she does. To that end, it’s an insightful work that realizes a fully formed central female character, a woman tugged in multiple directions, none of which (except in passing mention) involve a romantic relationship.
Broken Nose Theatre, founded in 2012, is admirably a pay-what-you-can theater, meaning tickets are available at whatever price you’re willing to pay. Whether it’s $1 or something more, The Girl in the Red Corner is a fine way to spend your disposable income; you’ll get a solid show and support a promising local company in the process. Get more information, a performance schedule and tickets here.
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