Review | GIRL IN THE RED CORNER at Broken Nose Theatre

Review | GIRL IN THE RED CORNER at Broken Nose Theatre

Pictured: Kim Boler and Elise Marie Davis. Photo by Austin D. Oie.

by Elizabeth Ellis

A celebrated chef I used to work for distilled his formula for culinary success down to a few simple steps: Find the best ingredients you can, give them just enough seasoning so that each component shines on its own and as part of the whole, and know when to stop fussing with your recipes. The talented artists of Broken Nose Theatre have that formula down cold with their superb interpretation of Stephen Spotwood’s GIRL IN THE RED CORNER—it’s one of the all-around best productions in the city in years. With exquisite performances from the five talented and versatile actors, and intense yet sensitive direction from Elizabeth Laidlaw, this inspiring play shows how anyone can begin to change their life, and with determination and support they can find inner strength, depth, and a sense of purpose.

Halo (the fantastic Elise Marie Davis), recently divorced from an abusive husband, is unemployed with few promising options. She has taken to observing the MMA (mixed martial arts) action in a local gym. When she finally summons up the courage to step inside, she meets trainers Kyle (the excellent Mark West) and former addict Gina (the wonderfully focused August N. Forman). Gina at first refuses to train Halo, believing she lacks the mental and physical fortitude to become an MMA fighter. Halo perseveres, and convinces Gina to take her on as a student.

The gym becomes Halo’s escape from the drudgery and instability in her home life. Her annoying mother, Terry (the terrific Michelle Courvais), is slowly being pushed out from her long-term job as a cashier, which leads her to drink even more than usual. Halo’s brittle sister Brinn (Kim Boler, in a fabulous turn) is dealing with a rebellious daughter and her own frustrations with unfulfilled dreams. Brinn’s long-suffering husband, Warren (West again), works in middle-management for a cable company. He pulls a few underhanded strings to secure Halo a respite from unemployment in an entry-level, don’t-call-it-telemarketing position with his company. Halo uneasily accepts the job, realizing its soul-killing potential, and absolutely withers under the tutelage of corporate trainer Nancy (Courvais again, employing a wickedly accurate HR director’s rictus grin). In one perfectly executed scene, an exasperated Halo initiates a call to a customer and goes off on her. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service will recognize the visceral satisfaction of such a choice, as well as the consequences of such an action.

The highlights in Halo’s fairly dismal life occur when she meets with Gina for more and more intense training sessions; as Halo grows physically tougher, Gina improves her own skills for future MMA fights. One training fight between the two is peppered with the tired old platitudes women hear far too often: “don’t be so sensitive, you can’t take a joke, SMILE.” As Halo grows stronger and improves in the ring, she begins to see herself as more, and worth more, than what her past and surroundings would predict.

If Elizabeth Laidlaw decides to retire from her successful acting career to direct full-time, it would be a definite loss for the acting community, but a boon for the directing community in general and for women directors in specific. Laidlaw deftly finds not only the humanity in these very flawed and familiar characters, but their many moments of humor as well. Everyone knows a parent like Terry, a scary HR drone like Nancy, and a basically good-hearted person who’s been knocked down over and over by life like Halo. All the characters could easily have veered into the one-dimensional, but with the uniformly fine work by Laidlaw and her cast, the audience cheers for each and every one. A big part of the success for the show is due to John Tovar’s stellar, unflinching fight choreography. Too often stage fights appear like they’re running just a little too slowly, a little too calculated. Tovar’s fights look complete and authentic in the moment, and in the intimate alley space, each time a hit lands, the audience feels it. Therese Ritchie’s set, especially the corrugated flooring, perfectly captures the rough and gritty feel of a gym where fights and hard training happen.

As a woman who has trained with a professional MMA fighter, I can attest to the positive and transformative power that Halo also discovers: you learn more than you think you will when you learn how to punch things really hard. The sense of personal power, the truth in the old adage that motion releases emotion, and tapping into unknown reserves of strength: all of these helped Halo move toward a better and more fulfilling life than her present circumstances indicate. GIRL IN THE RED CORNER will give theatregoers a lot to talk about, reflect on, and, hopefully, punch.

GIRL IN THE RED CORNER plays through March 2 at the Den Theatre. More info at brokennosetheatre.com.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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