On its surface, Col Cseke’s The Fight or Flight Response is about two guys trying to escape their unfulfilling lives.
By day, Kevin (Justin Michael Carriere) is an Assistant Manager at Subway; by night he is a mixed martial arts fighter training for his first professional MMA fight. On the verge of turning thirty, Kevin sees the fight as his last first experience ever, a thought that motivates him even more to win and climb the professional ladder.
On the flip side, Kevin’s long-time friend Doug (Nathan Pronyshyn) is struggling to get away from the MMA scene altogether. Doug’s problem is that he has very little experience with anything outside of fighting. Before working full-time at Mohammed’s MMA Gym, the thirty-two year old slung coffee at Tim Hortons. Doug knows he wants to do something else with his life, but he just doesn’t know what that something else looks like. Paralyzed by fear and indecision, Doug hopes for some external force to move him in one direction or another.
This Verb Theatre production is staged inside the Joyce Dolittle Theatre, a small but malleable space. Costume and Set Designer Victoria Krawchuk has transformed the space into a MMA gym, equipment and all. The theatre’s brick walls add to the grittiness of the space, and the drama that unfolds during very real and brutal fight sequences (Fight choreography by Karl Sine with Pronyshyn and Carriere).
As mentioned, Cseke’s play is in some parts about these two friends trying to turn their lives around, but really the play is about the many problems with traditional masculinity, namely the emotional disconnect that young men experience. Traditional masculinity dictates that young men ought to keep their emotions bottled inside, that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. About the nature of fighting, Kevin muses that guys like fighting because it’s the only time when human contact between men is acceptable. Guys can’t touch other guys otherwise, he says, unlike girls who can make contact with other girls whenever. And so, following these lines, young men remove themselves emotionally in two ways, from the self and from others.
So, it’s no surprise that the men in Cseke’s play have such a hard time not only describing what they’re feeling, but then sharing that with someone else. For them, the only thing that makes sense is fighting, knowing that someone wins and someone loses at the end of a match. Support, not competition, it’s a novel idea.
Director Kelly Reay pursues this awkwardness between Kevin and Doug by having both actors never quite engaging each other directly, not until the heated finale anyway. Maybe the best way to describe Reay’s direction is by comparing it to when people walk aimlessly around their homes while on the telephone. The actors play or distract themselves with the various equipment laying around the gym while digging deep into their character’s emotional well. It’s a funny thing at first, but then we realize that these distraught characters would need to distract themselves in order to be so open about their emotions. And the actors are most usually talking to each other from afar, growing that emotional distance even further. Excellent direction by Reay who succeeds in pulling the actors and action together at the end.
Pronyshyn and Carriere display tremendous vulnerability in this raw, engaging production. The actors speak volumes through their movement alone. It’s fascinating just how much non-verbal communication is expressed during the training periods, and other blows exchanged between the two. What’s exciting, too, is the sense of immediacy that the actors draw from their characters’ seemingly hopeless lives. The big life changes, they have to happen now or never. Time is not something people can fight, but only accept.
A riveting piece of work by Cseke, and a knockout production from Verb Theatre.
Verb Theatre’s The Fight or Flight Response by Col Cseke runs March 10 – 19 at the Joyce Dolittle Theatre (Pumphouse Theatres).
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.verbtheatre.com/season/