Balls at Stages Serves Up Grand Slam Conceptual Theater

Ellen Tamaki, Zakiya Iman Markland, Danté Jeanfelix  and Donald Corren in Stages Repertory Theatre's and One Year Lease Theater Company's world premiere co-production of Balls.
Ellen Tamaki, Zakiya Iman Markland, Danté Jeanfelix and Donald Corren in Stages Repertory Theatre's and One Year Lease Theater Company's world premiere co-production of Balls. Photo by Os Galindo


Balls, balls, balls, balls, balls.

Okay, kids, have you got the snickering out of your system yet? Honestly, I haven’t heard this much juvenile tee-heeing about the name of a show since Mike Bartlett’s 2009 love triangle play, Cock.

But perhaps in the case of Balls (by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery, a world premiere co-production by One Year Lease Theater Company and Stages Repertory Theatre), a juvenile reaction is called for. After all, the event it depicts is as sophomoric as it is famous. Equal parts showboating spectacle and sport, the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (played right here in Houston at the Astrodome) was watched by ninety million people hoping to see either the young, top-of-her-game, King wipe the floor with Riggs, or Riggs (an avowed male chauvinist) prove once and for all that men are superior.

Circus stuff, right?

Well, yes and no. Sure, the event was a carnival-like marketing ploy. But also central to the match was the backdrop of the feminist movement, committed to stamping out gender inequity wherever it existed. And it’s addressing this movement and its aftermath that Balls serves up and often aces. But not without a couple of double faults along the way.

Conceptually, Balls is a grand slam. There’s the clever, tongue-in-cheek opening voiceover describing how cave men and women came to discover, regard and place value on each other’s round, ball-like parts. There’s a formless umpire taking a mind break from the game to give us facts, figures and historical social justice references about what was going on in the world at the time of the match and beyond.

There is no question, Balls is a production that comes to play. If by play one means throw down (spiritedly and with a sly giggle) on how women have had to fight, and not always win, the battle for gender progress.

Did you know, the umpire voice says in soothing tones, that meanwhile Althea Gibson, the first black professional tennis player, was watching the match and wondering when she would be allowed to battle for her equality. That meanwhile Jane Roe took her fight all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure women had control of their own bodies? That meanwhile a woman ran and lost for the presidency of the United States of America? Far from preachy, these historic touchstone nods (and the occasional spider-eating-her-mate fact) settle over the show like the finest feminist play-by-play color commentator calling the action.

But without question it’s the depiction of the match itself that’s the main accomplishment and joy of the show. One Year Lease, known for its physically complex and highly choreographed theater, doesn’t disappoint. On a truncated yellow and green tennis court set, replete with court, net, scoreboard and stadium lights (scenic design by Kristen Robinson and property design by Jodi Bobrovsky) King (Ellen Tamaki) and Riggs (Donald Corren) give us an almost shot by shot literal re-enactment of the game with flare, grace and good old fashioned elbow grease effort. And while you’ll find literally dozens of tennis balls on set, used in variously creative moments, the dueling pair never actually use or hit a ball.

Instead, the whole match is mimed to pulse-racing and stomach-tightening effect, thanks in large part to movement director Natalie Lomonte (who turns these actors into tennis machines) and to directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint, who constantly morph the set into a series of half-court, side-court and off-court perspectives. Equal kudos must go to sound designer Brendan Aanes. Is there anything more aurally satisfying than the resonant thwap and p-dong of a tennis racket making perfect contact with a ball? Or the methodical bounce bounce bounce of that same ball by a player’s hand just before a serve is launched? Our hearts pound with every set “played.” The effect so darn good, we don’t even notice there aren’t real balls being thwacked over the net.

But a 90-minute play with only umpire voiceovers, changing set configuration and a game played out point for point in exact time wouldn’t be enough to hold our theatrical attention. So Armento and Lavery wisely inject some monologue moments for the players and throw in supporting roles to populate and fill the time. And it’s here that things get a little crowded on the court.

We never really get to know Riggs or King, other than some brief insight into why each is playing. Him for the money and out of a fear of mortality, her for the money, the equality message and because she’s far more comfortable on the court than trying to deal with her gayness, her female lover or her husband. And that’s fine. King and Riggs are the delivery system for the play’s message, not the emotional core.

For that we get King’s husband, Larry (Danté Jeanfelix), aware and accepting of his wife’s sexuality at the time but unwilling to let it go public, and Billie Jean King’s lover, Marilyn (Zakiya Iman Markland). Both sit immediate courtside during the game, giving us intermittent insight into their complicated love triangle that eventually undid King’s tennis career when she was outed as a lesbian. None of the triad comes out smelling like roses, and we appreciate that their story isn’t told in moral absolutes, but rather in shades in which everyone behaves badly at times, under the right circumstances.

Then there are the brother/sister attendees who come watch the game. Cherry (Cristina Pitter) idolizes King, until she recoils at her sexuality (yes, timelines are warped here as King wasn’t outed until way after the match.) Her brother Terry (Danny Bernardy) loves Riggs and all things machismo. We laugh and squirm as the pair tangle in gender politics, mirroring a society that only allows women to be what society wishes them to be. A society that sees things as binary and wants to view life in pretty packages rather than the complex and often messy business of being human.

All these supporting characters seem like welcome guests, invited to enhance the story, give context and push the gender conflict narrative. So then, what are the other six characters doing in the show? Add them in and it starts to feel like just too much muchness.

The linesmen clowns (Olivia McGiff and Alex J. Gould), outfitted and behaving like dimwitted stooges, seem out of place in this politically and socially savvy script. An odd side story involving the deplorable or simply fool-hearted choices of footballer Jim Brown (Jeanfelix) and Chrissie Evert (Elisha Mudly) feels tacked on like a P.P.P.S. on an already full postcard. Worst of all is the falling in love, the marriage and breakup due to feminism and lesbianism trajectory of the match’s Ballboy and Ballgirl (Gould and Mudly). It comes across as more after-school special than organic storytelling, so we know immediately where this doomed couple is headed and are anxious to get back to be released from their distraction.

As the final minutes count down in the match whose outcome we already know, what are we to take away?

No question we’ve been given a theatrical spectacle. A damn good one at that. Absolutely the show provides some easily digestible food for thought about how far the feminist and equal rights movement has come since this silly match. Both generally and in tennis. And not always as quickly or easily as we would like. Fun fact — Wimbledon was the last tournament to finally award equal pay to its male and female champions. In 2007.

“Why did we do it?” Riggs asks King in the quiet final scene. “Because we are who we are,” says King. Not the deepest of moments to end on, but that seems to be the point of Balls in the first place. This gender divide we battle on court or off really isn’t that profound. It doesn’t take some big, orchestrated match to show us how erroneous and downright silly gender hierarchy is.

The message in the end is simple, no matter what kind of “balls” one has: The court is all of ours to play on as equals.

Balls continues through October 29 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $25 to $55.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman