He is lying supine on the ground, surrounded by seven standing men--some of them big and bearlike, some small and scrawny, others lean and spidery. They are taking turns kicking him in slow motion, grinning in exultation as their victim recoils from the impact, writhing feebly until the next shoe smashes into one of his bones or body organs. Suddenly a shrill whistle, as of a referee, is heard. The action immediately switches to full-speed, as all of the attackers close in on their target, kicking him in unison, seven individual sneaker-clad feet moving exactly the same distance, in the same direction, at the same time. The picture of savage animals bringing down their prey is quickly and absurdly transformed into one of a Riverdance-like chorus performing a precision-drill time-step.
Fight captain Scott Cummins winces and shakes his head, as does director Kate Buckley. Among The Thugs, adapted for the stage by Tom Szentgyorgyi, is based on American journalist Bill Buford's exploration of mob violence among British soccer fans. Its theme demands simulated mayhem delivering all the awe-inspiring shock of a terrorist bombing. And there are only 11 more days until the piece is scheduled to open at Evanston's Next Theatre.
The eight actors are all now on their feet, relaxed but alert, and awaiting instructions. Cummins surveys them thoughtfully.
"You, John, you kick once," he calls out, pointing. "Mark, R.J., you both kick three times. Dominic, Andy, you kick twice. Brad, you've got the whistle--you kick once. You too, Eric. And John, when you're through kicking him, cross downstage a few steps. Now, let's take it from the last two slow kicks--John and Dom, that's yours--and see how that looks."
Aaron Christensen--"the beanbag"--positions himself on the ground again. After he receives his two slo-mo kicks, the whistle sounds the cue. There is an immediate flurry of jerking feet, and, just as rapidly, the attackers break formation and run away, leaving their battered victim unconscious. Cummins and Buckley both nod. "That's better."
"When I first spoke with Robin McFarquhar, our fight choreographer [presently working on another project, and unavailable for interview], I said that I wanted the fights to look as realistic as possible," Buckley tells me. "I didn't want long-bout, punch-jab-and-thrust duels, but something that happens--bang!--in a split second. Most fights usually have a set-up consisting of a complex series of moves, but our fights are one-two-three and they're out. Robin is English himself, and when he was younger, he went to the matches. So he's seen this kind of movement, and he said that's exactly the way it was. He also thought it was a great idea, since he'd not done anything like that in awhile."
Seeing my startled expression, he explains further. "The audience is too close for ordinary non-contact stage fighting, so we're using full-contact techniques. For example, one of the actors gets kicked in the stomach--but it's a 'pulled' kick. You start it from the hip, lash out at the knee, and you don't follow through with your body. That just pops it into your target to make a good sound, without hurting him. It's pretty safe. But you do have to take the hit."
Christian Kohn, who plays Buford, places himself on stage, along with John Sierros and Andrew Micheli for what everybody calls the "scusi, scusi" fight. In this scene, Buford and Mick, his rough-and-ready guide (played by Sierros), are waiting for the bus to take them to the semifinals match between Manchester United and Turin's Juventas teams. Suddenly a stranger (played by Micheli) trots up, enthusiastically greeting them, "Scusi! Scusi! You English? I? I Italian."
Mick slowly turns, throwing a friendly arm around the stranger's shoulders. Just as casually, he kicks the Italian boy in the crotch, spins him upstage and punches him once in the face before bringing his knee up in an uppercut to the chin. He then releases his dazed victim, who drops to the ground. As Buford watches in horror, Mick delivers one last brutal kick to the figure now lying still, and turns back to the bus stop and Buford, who has retreated from the assault. ("Did you see that?" Kohn will later ask Cummins. "I backed away. Is that all right?". His fellow cast members, laughing, will assure him "Yeah, Christian. You'll get a Jeff Award for that moment.")
Asked to distinguish between American and English brawling styles, Cummins frowns. "The only difference we saw in some of the documentaries we watched is that they [the English] do a lot more kicking than Americans. But that's their culture. It's more to do with the English football, [what we call] soccer, as opposed to American sports--baseball or basketball, that use the hands more."
Cut to the cast now rehearsing the "krak" fight--a scene in which Buford is speaking to us while simultaneously being bludgeoned by police officers. As a defense, he has curled up into a ball, saying "You can't beat up someone who's already surrendered. Maybe they'll truncheon me once en route to the others. I've been truncheoned before. It stings, but the sting goes away."
As the uniformed guard strikes him a blow which does not actually connect, the other cast members beat the ground once with kendo-style sticks to punctuate the sound of the impact. "Okay, so I was wrong!" Buford admits. Another guard hits him, the chorus again striking the ground with their staffs once, then three times, then five, then seven. Soon the noise is deafening as Buford grimaces in agony, rolling helplessly like a rag doll under the barrage of punishing pain.
Responding to my query about the hazards in this type of fight, Cummins shrugs. "Getting carried away," he says, "like in any fight. If someone follows through on a kick, somebody else gets a serious rib injury. But we've got ten guys in the cast, everybody's involved in a fight at one time or another, and there's been no accidents yet."
"Buford makes the point that the violence--specifically, the crowd violence--is a drug, and we have to see the drug working," says Buckley. "We try to portray the different levels of that experience--the good and the bad, the high and the low. But we don't want to take it so far that the audience is repelled into not caring any more. They have to understand the attraction of the violence."
Cummins concurs. "Buford's written a terrific book, and Tom has made it theatrically exciting for us to work on. But the action in a play--especially a play told as a journey--has to flow from one idea to the other. We hope the fights will serve to make that journey a smooth one for our audience."
Epilogue: Among the Thugs opened to enthusiastic reviews on May 1. On his way home that same night, lead actor Christian Kohn fell on a gravel path and fractured his kneecap, requiring surgery the next day. (In this case, life imitated art, only art was safer.) The show closed for a week, then reopened with Kohn in a cast and on crutches, which was worked into the revamped stage violence. Among the Thugs runs through June 3.
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