Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Burning of Greenwood, Million Dollar Quartet, and The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings
There are four characters in Red Speedo. Ray (Logan Lang) is a competitive swimmer in the Speedo. From what background we are able to glean, it seems he has never had anything going for him but swimming. He lays claim to no other skills, nor interests. When his older brother Peter (Paul LaNave) declares that Ray is "No scholar," Ray chimes in with an affirmative "Nope," as if the thought never even entered his mind. Now he is one qualifying race away from making it to the U.S. Olympic swim team–and more.
The "more" is where Peter comes in. Peter, a disillusioned attorney about ten years older than Ray, has assumed the role of representing Ray in dealings with Ray's swim club and coach, with the Olympic Committee and–most recently–the Speedo company. Peter has lined up a very lucrative deal for Ray to become a Speedo spokesmodel, contingent on one detail–that qualifying race. There is big money involved, which Ray muses he'll earn by virtue of all those hours of having his photo taken. But Peter is looking beyond, to other deals and other athletes he can represent, a way out from the dull thud of his life as a lawyer, while still being able to support himself, his wife, and their daughter in comfort.
The third character is Coach (John Winston Stephens). Over the past year Coach has pushed Ray hard and in return has seen the swimmer excel way ahead of the pack, setting records no one can touch. However, as the play opens, Coach has a problem. He found a cooler containing performance enhancing drugs in the swim club's break-room refrigerator. The rumor is that they belong to Tad, a swimmer a couple tiers below Ray. Coach will give Tad an opportunity to step forward and admit that the drugs are his–to do the right thing. Otherwise, Coach will have to report his discovery to the athletic league. Peter argues vehemently against this: even though, of course, the drugs have nothing to do with Ray, drawing attention to them without being able to name the offender will cast a pall over the entire team, Ray included. It goes unsaid that such a pall might be noticed by the bigwigs at Speedo.
The fourth character is Lydia (Amanda Forstrom). Lydia was a sports therapist who treated Ray, and the two fell into a hot affair. Part of that heat is attributable to Lydia's help that enabled Ray to make those great strides in the swimming pool. Sometime in the recent past Lydia dumped Ray, and he is desperate to win her–and the assistance she provided–back.
All four characters face weighty moral questions in the course of the play. What is the right thing for Coach to do about the drugs? How much control should Peter exert over his younger and, admittedly, much dimmer brother, and how much should Peter profit in the process? What does Ray most want: Olympic glory, fame and fortune as a barely clad image of male physical beauty, or a life with Lydia–or can he have them all? And what actions are morally acceptable for Ray to succeed. For Lydia, the question is whether she can forgive what was unforgivable and start anew, and whether doing so is merely a way of enabling Ray.
The playwright requires that the play's set include the edge of a pool, though not that it be an actual swimming pool. However, the use of an actual pool, complete with roped off racing lanes, swimmer's records posted, and time clocks staring down from the walls, reenforces the singular intensity of Ray's focus on this one thing and its hold over those who orbit around him. Natalie Novacek does a terrific job as director of the production, kicking things off with a high strain of tension from Peter's long-winded opening speech, announcing in its way that we have stumbled into some kind of hornets' nest, and we strain to figure out what it all means before the hornet stings. The dialogue is quick, with characters interrupting one another's unfinished thoughts, and sly humor works its way through strings of words in a manner reminiscent of David Mamet, at his best. The relationships established between Ray and each of the other four characters–and between Peter and Coach–steam with white hot energy.
Lang is absolutely stunning as Ray. We believe him being dumb, we believe him being desperate, and we believe him full of yearning and even a touch of tenderness. In a final confrontation, we believe him truly wanting to break free of the binding cords that have given him the tightly wound focus that is both a gift and a curse. Thanks to his well-toned physique, we also believe that Speedo would make him their spokesmodel. Great as Lang is, he is matched every step by LaNave as Peter. LaNave infuses Peter with a masterful glibness; he's someone who could sell a curling iron to a snowman. He depicts Peter's moral duality, between being a caring big brother looking after a kid who would be lost without him, and a conniving manipulator for whom Ray is nothing more than the means to an end. About halfway in, Peter delivers a sermon to Ray about why making lots of money–not just getting by, but a lot of money–is so vital. In that speech LaNave conveys everything Peter believes about the world and his place in it.
Stephens is excellent as Coach, showing how he has been there to support Ray through an arduous arc of steady improvement, his moral clarity in the face of a debacle that could be greatly injurious to everything he has worked for, and his ability to reconcile that clarity with harsh realities and assert his place in resolving the crisis. Forstrom gives a strong performance as Lydia, conveying the slight cracks in her resolve to move on from a situation that was devastating for her.
The pool is the set, so there are no set, lighting, or sound design credits. The apt costumes were designed by Khamphian Vang, whose fine work has been seen in a host of recent productions. There are two uncommon credits worthy of mention. First of all, Annie Enneking, as fight choreographer, working with assistant fight choreographer Sophina Saggau, devised a fight that is truly edge-of-the-seat gripping. Then there is Lucie Biros as tattoo designer–which, I am pretty sure, is a theater credit I have not encountered before. Ray has an enormous tattoo on his back, the image of a serpent whose tail extends down over one buttock (coyly obscured by the Speedo) and continues down his leg. The tattoo seems to be a way for Ray to assert his independence, resilience and individuality. He loves this tattoo and thinks it is fantastically cool. At least for me, it is a bit monstrous and a prompt to ponder what it will be like going through life and aging with that inescapable image as one's calling card–thoughts far beyond the ken of the Rays of the world. At any rate, Biros' design is splendid.
Red Speedo is well matched to Walking Shadow's propensity for theatre that takes us someplace and raises questions we hadn't thought to explore before–as in their stunning 2016 production of another notable Hnath play, The Christians. Red Speedo is another solid achievement for the scrappy company, and highly recommended.
Red Speedo, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, runs through July 1, 2023, at the Bush Student Center Swimming Pool, Hamline University, 1537 Hewitt Ave., St. Paul MN. Tickets: pick your price, $15 to $50, market price is $45. For tickets and information, please call 612-375-0300 or visit walkingshadow.org.
Playwright: Lucas Hnath; Director: Natalie Novacek; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Assistant Fight Choreographer: Sophina Saggau; Intimacy Director: James Grace; Tattoo Designer: Lucie Biros; Assistant Director: Sunny Thao; Production Manager: David Pisa.
Cast: Amanda Forstrom (Lydia), Paul LaNave (Peter), Logan Lang (Ray), John Winston Stephens (Coach).