Of all sports, boxing is the most theatrical. The ring is a perfectly realized stage. Rounds are short scenes leading to an inevitable climax. There is a clear-cut conflict between two characters who have a definite motivation: knock the other guy out.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, considering theater's proven track record of attracting those of an alternative-lifestyle persuasion, this most theatrical of sports is also the most homoerotic. Consider: two grunting, panting men, bathed in sweat and rippling with muscles, clenching, groping and assaulting one another, with nothing but a flimsy pair of shorts separating them.
At least, that's the world of boxing as seen through playwright Oliver Mayer's gritty tale of Latin boxers in the late '50s, Blade to the Heat. Equally powerful and trite, Mayer's world is populated by boxers both vicious and sensitive, the women—and men —who love them, and one confused young man who finds redemption and punishment for his guilty homosexual feelings by getting the crap beaten out of him. It's a play that utterly obliterates the often thin line between fighting and fucking.
And while this community-college production at Fullerton College suffers from an uneven acting ensemble, there are enough fine performances to lift the proceedings above the glitzy excess that hampered its 1996 production at the better-financed Mark Taper Forum. That production felt so much in love with itself—and so much in love with the seemingly never-ending parade of naked man-flesh onstage—that the compelling human dynamic of its story was lost.
Not this time. Director Gary Krinke doesn't have top-shelf acting talent, but he makes the most out of what he has. Coupled with Daniel Miller's very impressive scenic design and Zachary Harless' creative lighting plan, the result is a world that looks and feels quite authentic.
Mayer loosely based his play on the death of a Los Angeles fighter who was killed in the ring in 1962 after he taunted an opponent with a sexual slur. In this play, that boxer is Mantequilla Decima (Moises Merian), a reigning middleweight champion a few years past his prime. Decima is Cuban and—obviously—muy macho.
Decima is humiliated in a surprising split decision in favor of half-Irish, half-Mexican fighter Pedro Quinn (Romanel Viramontes). Adding insult to injured pride are the whispered accusations that he's lost his edge in the ring because he's maricon—gay. Decima's rage is enflamed by Wilfred Vinal, another contender for the title, who swears he can kick both Decima's and Quinn's asses—because they're both gay.
Like "communist," "queer" was powerful enough to jeopardize any man's career in 1959. Add to that the testosterone-driven world of boxing and the ultramacho Latin culture, and the allegation strikes at a man's very identity. By constantly trumpeting the charge, Vinal forces Decima and Quinn into areas of personal and professional conduct neither is quite prepared to enter.
While offering insights about boxing and Latin culture, Mayer's play is far from perfect, with a subplot about a hardened boxer mourning his dead dog being the most laughable intrusion. It's also hard to get one's bearings while watching the play because you never know if it's supposed to be more about the sensitive, introverted Quinn or the macho Decima; the latter comes off as a comical cross between Ricky Ricardo and Roberto Duran.
Who we're supposed to be cheering for is even harder to get into focus in this production, in which the supporting characters are far more interesting than the principals. That includes Maurice Orr, who plays Garnet, an African-American entertainer who is Quinn's only friend. Garnet looks like a young Wesley Snipes and moves like a young Ben Vereen; he is wickedly talented. Rafael Agustin's Vinal is also spot-on as the nasty antagonist who gleefully proclaims he'll fuck anything—anything—that moves. Cody Storts also shines in a role easily twice if not three times his actual age: Three-Finger Jack, the veteran trainer who doesn't care if his boxer likes to screw men as long as he fights like a man.
It's the strength of the supporting characters that gives this production most of its edge—an edge that is unfortunately blunted by the rather anemic boxing scenes. In fairness, short of letting these guys actually slug it out and risk concussions, I'm not sure how to stage the combat scenes more effectively. But the slow-motion, pantomimed hits and misses do sap a lot of the brutality and power from the play's climax.
And this is a play that otherwise never shies away from brutality, whether it's the bloodthirsty carnage inside the ring or the havoc wrought on the psyches of fighters who find that grappling with their inner demons is far more difficult than knocking out another man in the ring.
BLADE TO THE HEAT at Fullerton College's Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, 321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 992-7433. Thurs.-Sat., Nov. 9-11, 8 p.m. $9.50-$10.50.