Balls, the world premiere play at Stages Theatre depicting the 'Battle of the Sexes' tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, in a mere 90 minutes manages to figuratively show off one huge set of ovaries.
Yes, the play embodies all the audacity, daring and a dash of recklessness, that its title connotes, but it also possesses such sparks of life, if I had to choose a pair of rounded reproductive organs to represent that spirit, ovaries wins that battle of the biological sex slang as triumphantly as King won that fateful day in Houston.
A co-production between Stages and New York’s One Year Lease theater company, Balls begins this timeless war (or is it a game?) between the sexes at the beginning and in the dark, at the dawn of human history with our unseen first man and woman already bickering over who has the “authorial voice.” Minutes later, we jump a few hundred thousand years or so as the stage lights rise on the Astrodome, September 20, 1973.
The creative forces behind Balls, the complimentary-matched playwrights Bryony Lavery and Kevin Armento and co-directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint, set out to prove that the famous match between King (Ellen Tamaki) and Riggs (Donald Corren) took its place in history as both entertaining spectacle and as a reflection of women’s growing rebellion against the roles they must play and the lines that they were told to never cross or else lose points in the gender game.
Balls attempts to give perspective to this specific Battle of the Sexes, pretty much every perspective possible, replaying almost every shot, smash, point and volley of the match. With each game, the actors move the net around the stage, changing the audience’s point of view of the court.
During several of the games we get Riggs and King’s inner monologues and motivations allowing Tamaki and Corren to go deeper into their characters than the famous facades television cameras captured for millions of people across the world watching.
This King feels the weight of representing women athletes as well as her whole sex as she plays, but she also wants to play for the love of the game and its perfect oblong, the only space where she exercises dominion over her own life. Corren’s Riggs is something of a showmen and an ass, but he gives Riggs dimension and sympathy as the 55-year-old continues to fight time and irrelevancy.
Yet Balls, ever kinetic, allows a multitude of other points of views to give voice to the event. With most of the rest of the cast playing at least two roles, we also get King’s husband Larry (Danté Jeanfelix) and lover Marilyn’s (Zakiya Iman Markland) contradicting visions of King.
Ballgirl (Elisha Mudly) and Ballboy (Alex J. Gould) give their view from the net as well as the future as they fall in love, marry, have kids but struggle to maintain their happily ever after. Celebrity guests like Chris Everet (Mudly) and Jim Brown (Jeanfelix) and a pair of arguing fans (Cristina Pitter and Danny Bernardy) give their own commentary from the sidelines. Meanwhile, the unseen god and goddess-like umpires (also Bernardy and Pitter) narrate between sets to tell us how the match reverberates politically and culturally beyond Houston, 1973 all the way into the 21st century.
As the actors recreate each game and set, so our focus moves to the stories, commentaries and changing views of the bystanders. In one rather lovely game, we even get the ball’s perspective as the actors move to the fringes of the darken stage and we watch a glowing tennis ball dance back and forth across the net.
The stellar performers move beautifully together, but if I had to point to any stars who steal the show, I’d name artists from the creative crew, especially sound designer Brendan Aanes and Natalie Lomonte in charge of the movement direction in the production. Together with the cast they create a gloriously choreographed music of the yellow, bouncy spheres.
In a bit of H-Town–centric backstory, the One Year Lease creative team felt they had to debut Balls in Houston where the Battle first raged and so teamed up with Stages. The production heads to New York for its Off-Broadway premiere in January. So while theater-lovers should definitely catch Balls for a saw-it-first sense of smugness, I’d also recommend this game because it reminds us what theater can do.
Film and books can and have documented this cultural milestone and the real lives caught up in the King/Riggs showdown, but this kind of telling, one that goes to almost quantum and cosmic levels in its depiction can only be realized by the immediacy of live performers on stage. While Ball tends to play more cerebral than visceral, it ultimately wins its match made in theater, as one not to be missed.
Balls runs now through October 29 at Stages Theatre.