Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The title character is Raymond Queens, born Raymond Sykes, an African-American man in Pittsburgh at the start of the twentieth century. Raymond is large and lumbering but speaks in a poetic voice and longs for meaning beyond his work-a-day existence. His mother offers comfort, but he yearns to know his father. The steel mills dehumanize Raymond and trigger his impulse to fight. Fighting, he claims, is the only thing that gives him peace, but it costs him his job. Raymond leaves his mother and Lucy, the sweet girl next door who loves him, to search for "a man I did not know." He finds a father figure in Al Tilly, whose shady enterprises include managing boxers, and who renames his protégé Raymond Queens. Raymond proves he can use his size and speed to win fights, but at an unexpected price. He faces a turning point when the limits of his capacity in the ring cross paths with Elizabeth, a woman who brings Raymond back to his dreams and suggests a different path to peace.
In a prelude, the play's three actors take the stage extolling the legendary strength and prowess of Raymond Queens, tall tales along the lines of "he hit a man with so much pressure, his eyes turned to diamonds." The first act of Queens launches Raymond on a trajectory to glory in the boxing ring. In the second act Raymond has become a fearsome threat in the ring, but his record is not so taut. Near the end, he is introduced with 125 wins, seventy-some losses, and fifty-some draws. A winning record, yes, but hardly unstoppable. Yet, to this point, we only seen him as a winner. Then, a loss occurs that triggers a psychic descent. Why, after having many defeats in the past, this particular loss undoes him is not made clear. To care deeply about Raymond's fall and the possibility of his reaching a state of grace, we need to understand the nature of the fall. Similarly, Elizabeth makes it her mission to rescue Raymond from himself, but we see no evidence of an actual relationship kindled between them.
Typical of Sandbox Theatre's esthetics, a great deal of the story is told through choreographed movementelegant, evocative and beautifulthat conveys a range of feeling, such as the mechanized brutality of the steel mill, the shy tenderness between young Raymond and Lucy, the visceral energy of a fight, the glory of victory, and Elizabeth's reach into Raymond's wounded spirit. Movement tells the story with power and grace. Co-directors Theo Langason and Matthew Glover create striking stage imagery that brings depth to the production. The text, however, sometimes weighs down the story, repetitious and unrolling at a slow pace that seems at odds with the thrust of Raymond's journey. The ensemble seems to have been inspired in its creation of the physical look and flow of the piece. Perhaps future iterations of Queens would allow more attention to finding language that springs more organically from the people on stage, rather than from the minds of its creators.
The central role of Raymond is divided between two actors. In act one, Theo Langason is young Raymond, who sets out from home on his journey of discovery and morphs into the boxer Raymond Queens. In act two, Neal Hazard plays an older Raymond who begins to see his ambition tarnished and to feel the old emptiness of his youth inhabit his being once more. Both actors give superb performances and the transition between acts from the young to the older Raymond feels very natural. Hazard also plays Al Tilly, believable as an innately kind man who uses deceit as his means of survival. Emily Madigan plays all of the women: Raymond's mother, Lucy, Elizabeth, and Miss James, a hard boiled fight promoter. She is wonderful in all of these guises, using her mellow-toned voice and supple body to give each character a unique essence.
Throughout, Devon Gray performs his musical score for piano, sometimes with force, other times very subtly underscoring the action. There are passages that evoke Gershwin, other passages bring to mind the thrust of a freight train heading for destinations unknown, at times lightly romantic, other times menacing. Throughout, it is beautifully composed and played, and adds an aural component that enriches the imagery of the piece. At the start and end of the play, Theo Langason performs "The Difference," a song he composed that serves as bookends to Queens. Heidi Eckwall's lighting design is also an essential element of this work, using shifts in light and shadows to heighten the emotive power of Raymond's journey. Samantha Rei Crossland's simple costume designs evoke the hard lives lived by these characters.
Queens is a slender tale, perhaps too slender to extend over two acts. We have a rudderless man who uses the only resources he has to bring meaning to his life, only to find a hallow core. Though this is not a new story, the particulars of Raymond Queen's case are beautifully and forcefully depicted in the visual and aural elements of the play. A more authentic sounding text and quickened pacing might place a deepened layer of understanding upon the sensory impact of Sandbox Theatre's work.
Queens, a Sandbox Theatre production, continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through June 4, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00, Bleacher seats: $25.00. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org. For information about Sandbox Theatre go to sandboxtheatreonline.com.
Created by the Ensemble; Co-directors: Matthew Glover and Theo Langason; Project Lead: Matthew Glover; Assistant Directors/Ensemble Creators: Peter Heeringa and Heather Stone; Scenic Design/Ensemble Creator: Derek Lee Miller; Costume Design: Samantha Rei Crossland; Lighting Design: Heidi Eckwall; Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard.
Cast: Neal Hazard (Raymond, Al Tilly, Robert Sykes, others), Theo Langason (Young Raymond, PeeWee, others), Emily Madigan (Clara Sykes, Lucy Webster, Miss James, Elizabeth, others).
Music composed and performed by Devon Gray. "The Difference" written and performed by Theo Langason.