(Image: Zakiya Iman Markland, Ellen Tamaki and Danté Jeanfelix in Stages Repertory Theatre's and One Year Lease Theater Company's world premiere co-production of BALLS. Photo by Os Galindo.)
Houston, TX is currently hosting the World Premiere of Balls, a co-production between Stages Repertory Theatre and New York-based One Year Lease Theater Company, and if you have the ability, you shouldn’t miss this one of a kind production. Based on the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, this unique production delivers one of the most technically impressive reimaginings of a historical event while delving into the deep emotions behind its social context.
Co-written by Tony award nominee Bryony Lavery and Edinburgh Stage award winner Kevin Armento, and co-directed by One Year Lease’s Co-Artistic Directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint, Balls delivers social commentary on sexism, chauvinism, and even ageism to the high-intensity physicality on which One Year Lease Theater Company has earned an acclaimed reputation. Delivering shot-by-shot gameplay of the entire match for the stage is a technical marvel, but that it also serves up an existential look at both every aspect of those involved with the match and even life in general makes for a deeply raw, moving experience.
The intimate setting of Stages Repertory Theatre gives a front row viewing of a grand scale event. The entire theater is designed to recreate the Houston Astrodome, where the 1973 match took place. The seats bear covers that match the red, orange, and yellow stadium seating of Houston’s beloved 8th Wonder, making this production feel all the more apropos for its choice in World Premiere location. The set design is a simple, yet impressive, tennis court that allows for the characters to fill the space with their movement and emotionally-charged dialogue.
The cast is made up of ten - Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, Clown Boy, Clown Girl, Marilyn Barnett, Larry, Ballboy, Ballgirl, Terry, and Cherry. Some of the cast pull double duty in minor roles or voiceovers of umpires that are heard but not seen. Though this may be about the match between King and Riggs, the entire cast must balance intricate choreography and dialogue, no easy task. The narrative goes to some heavy places, while also incorporation the mime-like Clown Boy and Clown Girl to offer levity to counter the uncomfortable truths exposed. While King and Riggs must replay their famed match, stroke for stroke, they uncover their deeply human flaws and motivations as it progresses. Yet it’s the Ballgirl and Ballboy that wind up giving the most profound character arcs of the production, transcending the timeline of the match to offer an authentic timeline of love and heartbreak. Though the entire cast is comprised of immeasurable talent it’s Elisha Mudly and Alex J. Gould that effectively steal the show.
The sound design takes many of its cues from the time period on which the play is set, and cleverly also makes use of the production’s cast to create the sounds of the game itself and the amped up setting of the sporting event. Balls is an innovative play with the most impressive level of technical precision. It’s rife with humor, poking fun at the very concept of the battle of the sexes. Yet it gets reflective in ways I never expected, offering stark criticism and authentic heartbreak that blurs the lines between the gender wars. It’s poignant, physical, and - dare I say - ballsy.