Fearsome in its message, and altogether terrifying in the extreme physical demands it makes on its actors, Ike Holter’s “Prowess,” now receiving a no-holds-barred world premiere production by Jackalope Theatre, is often painful to watch. More precisely, it is painful to listen to, as the high impact thud of bodies – slammed on the floor, or against brick walls and metal filing cabinets – resonates with such force that you fear for the safety of the performers who you hope will survive the run of the show without a visit to the Emergency Room.
Of course, this visceral sense of physical demolition is exactly what Holter is after in “Prowess,” a play that confronts the violence and fear that comes with living in the often mortally dangerous city of Chicago, and also considers the responses of four people who have experienced such trauma in an intensely personal way. Loud, and brutal, and unrelenting, it is a cry from the gut whose fight scenes consume nearly as much time as its dialogue. And neither the actors, nor director Marti Lyons and her invaluable collaborator, fight director Ryan Bourque, shrink from the task Holter has set for them.
When: Through June 25
Where: Jackalope Theatre,
at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway
Run time: 2 hours and
10 minutes with one intermission
On the very morning of the day I saw “Prowess” the lead editorial in the New York Times began this way: “Only in America: A computer algorithm about guns has been created to predict who is most likely to be shot soon, or to shoot someone. The Chicago Police Department, desperate to reduce gun violence by street gangs, authorized this unusual tool three years ago, and has been using it to track and caution the most likely offenders.”
That “algorithm” is already fully operative in the psyches of Holter’s four characters.
The play begins as Mark (the immensely gifted and charismatic Julian Parker), arrives at the office where Zora (Sydney Charles, a superb musical theater actress who here demonstrates her power acting chops) works for an alderman – a Latina apparently skilled at playing the city’s political games. Two years earlier Zara was the victim of a notorious assault on an “L” train, and she has yet to recover from the psychological scars. So she has hired Mark – whose ad on Craig’s List is never overtly explained, but clearly comes with a certain street cred – to teach her how to fight. (The play would be a whole lot stronger if this initial meeting were not quite so manic and high-pitched.)
Mark, as it turns out, has come full circle in his young life to believe in defense rather than assault, but Zora prods him into fiercer action. She is full of rage, and perhaps wants more than she even realizes from her training. Her nerdy co-worker, Andy (Andrew Goetten, who replaced an ailing actor late in the process and does an expert job), is “the only white face in [his] neighborhood of brown,” so he also signs on to this “fight club” whose practice sessions take place on the roof of Mark’s apartment building. Watching from the sidelines – and leaving graffiti markers as eulogies for the victims of violence – is Jax (a most intriguing Donovan Diaz), a dropout and poet of sorts, who becomes Mark’s lover.
When a particularly gruesome crime takes place in their neighborhood, Mark realizes he and his new “trainees” can carry out some vigilante justice and force action by the police. But their success triggers some surprising responses in all four of them. Zora begins to taste blood, and her warrior nature appears to be unleashed to a terrifying degree. Andy, who comes away with a certain level of guilt, also gains a false confidence that will result in his destruction. And Mark, satisfied by this singular act of retribution, is ready to return to self defense. And there is more.
In the end, Holter seems to argue, it is individual survival – keeping one’s head down, avoiding danger to the extent possible, and removing oneself from the cycle of violence that comes with every blow of a fist, and every stabbing or gunshot – that is the only route worth taking in the current situation. Anything else just perpetuates the horror of it all.
Lyons has directed “Prowess” with an emotional and physical fury that fully lives up to the play’s title, and her designers (a terrific set by the ever-brilliant Courtney O’Neill is animated by superb, fear-inducing lighting and projections by Michael Stanfill, and sound by Matt Chapman) help drive the show by conjuring a summertime urban heat.
Borque’s fight choreography, which involves weapons as well as fists, is so real – and the actors (who clearly underwent the most grueling training) throw themselves into it with such abandon, that you may often find yourself cringing. But Holter’s play – which uses violence as a language all its own – fully demonstrates how the greatest threat to survival is the drive for “Prowess.”
Julian Parker (from left), Sydney Charles, Andrew Goetten and Donovan Diaz in Ike Holter’s “Prowess.” (Photo: Joel Maisonet)