The Coterie Theatre and the UMKC Theatre Department have joined forces to produce a remarkably well-acted revival of "The Wrestling Season," a taut one-act play by Laurie Brooks about intense social pressures and sexual identity among a group of teens.
The Coterie commissioned this piece, which it first staged in 2000. It was a unique approach to storytelling then and it still is.
This production, directed by Leigh Miller, unfolds with palpable tension. In one sense the show plays like a mystery in which layers of misconceptions are peeled away only to come to an elliptical conclusion that asks theatergoers to decide what may or may not be true. But it also recalls plays from another era that focused on social injustice and asked the audience to do something about it.
This is a fine cast and includes five third-year students in UMKC’s graduate actor training program. Miller’s direction is crisp and specific. The central relationships become fairly complex, but the actors maintain clarity throughout.
Central to the action is the friendship between Matt (Tosin Morohunfola) and Luke (Sam Cordes), two members of the high-school wrestling team and friends since childhood.
A couple of rumor-mongering teammates, Willy and Jolt (Francisco Villegas and Rufus Burns), begin implying that Matt and Luke are gay – although their own friendship suggests that perhaps Willy and Jolt protest too much – and by so doing amp up the homophobic panic and trigger bad choices all around.
To Matt’s dismay, Luke becomes distant after somebody scrawls an epithet on his locker. And eventually parties unknown jump Luke at night and beat him up. At the outset Matt doesn’t really have a girlfriend, although he is pals with Kori (Meredith Wolfe). In a bid to defuse the notion that he might be gay, he begins dating Melanie (Kelly Gibson), whose reputation in school is that she’ll sleep with anybody.
Fueling the rumors are Heather (Eva Biro), Jolt’s girlfriend, and her pal Nicole (Andrea Morales). Ultimately what becomes clear is that the people spreading falsehoods about others aren’t what they pretend to be. There’s a whole lot of projecting going on in this little social circle. Ultimately, it’s a play about perceptions vs. reality. At different times, individual characters step out of the action to say simply: “You think you know me. But you don’t.”
As noted, the acting is impressive, but central to this production’s success is Morohunfola, whose performance is a riveting sequence of small gestures, telling details and utterly convincing emotional distress. Changing emotions flicker across his face with no trace of artifice.
Matt’s relationship with Melanie (some theatergoers may recall the talented Gibson from the Kansas City Actors Theatre production of “The Birthday Party” last summer) is a painful portrait of a potential healthy relationship derailed by anxiety-driven mistakes.
The simple but visually striking set (designed by Lee Berhost) is a wrestling circle within a square, which has been illuminated evocatively by lighting designer Art Kent. Indeed, this entire production shimmers with a professional luster from the outset.
One of the unique aspects of the play is the presence of the Referee (Greg Brostrom), equipped with a whistle and striped shirt, who “referees” the conflicts on stage with concise commands, quick judgments and hand gestures. When the narrative proper reaches its conclusion, however, the play continues for a bit and Brostrom becomes the mediator of a question-and-answer session with the audience. Viewers are asked to express opinions about the characters and the events of the play while the actors, still in character, remain on stage.
The exchanges, aside from blurring the line between reality and make-believe, make for some interesting interplay as viewers provide diverse views of what they’ve seen unfold on stage. And what they see isn’t simple. In that way, the play is remarkably similar to what we refer to as “real life.”