Quiz: Name an event that features a halftime show, men performing in helmets and pads under the watchful gaze of a scoreboard timer, and maybe some sideline drummers thrown in for good measure.
If you said “a new American play,” you are correct! (The judges also would have accepted “football game.”)
Company One Theatre’s production of “Colossal,” which begins performances Friday, aims for a true theater of physicality in its melding of scripted drama and simulated game action. Included in the ensemble are six men in football uniforms who warm up in front of the audience and run plays — sometimes enacting pauses, rewinds, and fast-forwards that simulate the replay of game tape. A three-person drum corps (made up of students from Berklee College of Music) is on hand to rev up the energy. And the piece is divided into four quarters, each performed as a timer counts down from 15 minutes.
There’s even a “halftime show” of sorts, though it’s composed of a modern dance meant to deepen the audience’s understanding of the central character’s backstory.
“We get to walk that fine line between the beauty and the brutality of the thing,” says director and Company One cofounder Summer L. Williams, echoing the language of playwright Andrew Hinderaker.
This is the fourth production of “Colossal,” all part of a “rolling world premiere,” in the language of the National New Play Network. Previous productions have run in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Maryland.
Hinderaker’s play concerns a 22-year-old named Mike, seen about 10 months after an in-game injury has left him in a wheelchair, and also in flashbacks that illuminate his relationship with his father, who is a professional dancer, and Mike’s secret love affair with a teammate.
Present-day Mike is played by Marlon Shepard, who is making his professional acting debut. Alex Molina plays younger Mike, who interacts with his present-tense incarnation.
The entire cast is male, while the designers and crew members for this production are all female.
Though Shepard is new to the stage, he’s drawing from his own experience as a multi-sport athlete who was sidelined as a teenager by an accident that cost him the use of his legs. He has since become a competitive cross-country skier and a mentor to others with life-changing injuries.
“It’s just that initial question of, how do I come to terms with the person that I am and the person that I perceived myself to be before? When I was able-bodied, much like Mike I was very much physically oriented — sports, competition, all that sort of machismo experience,” Shepard says. “It’s grappling with the dilemma of, I’m no longer this physical specimen, so what do I do?”
Molina brings plenty of gridiron cred to his role. He played on special teams and as a receiver at the University of Connecticut for four years before spending two seasons in a semipro Danish league, with the Triangle Razorbacks of Vejle. He too is relatively new to acting, having picked it up after graduating from college.
Both Shepard and Molina liken the experience of live theater to that of competitive sports. Each says he gets a familiar adrenaline rush from performing onstage.
“I analyzed the play to within an inch of its life, and then when you get onstage it’s just about reacting and letting all those given circumstances happen and just being present,” Molina says. “When I’m onstage it’s similar to a game. What’s funny about theater and sports is that there are so many parallels. You do so much prep work, but then when it starts you have to just let it go. You just let yourself go and live in the moment.”
“Colossal” has become a more topical play in the few years since Hinderaker began workshopping it. In that time, the national conversation about the long-term impact of football injuries on players’ bodies (and lives) has intensified, and defensive end Michael Sam famously became the first openly gay player ever selected in the NFL draft. Other off-field scandals have also questioned the hyper-masculine culture of professional football.
“I think that what’s happened with football players with domestic violence, with Michael Sam, with the [concussion-related] lawsuit settlement, has amplified the parts of the play that are contemporary,” Hinderaker says. “I think as these stories have rolled out, it’s really made it feel very present and very real. ‘Colossal’ is something that is meant to feel both contemporary and ancient.”
With the play’s unconventional staging elements, Hinderaker admits that he’s written a play that’s particularly tricky to pull off. Parallels to the physical language of dance abound — underlining the connection, the onstage football squad doubles as the dance company performing at halftime.
In an introductory note to the script, he suggests that people working on the play check out clips of players Barry Sanders and Reggie Bush to examine “the nimble/beautiful elements of football,” and hits sustained by Bush and Kyle Jefferson to see “the brutal violence.” He also notes that he’s tried to write characters who aren’t “terribly comfortable or facile with the spoken word.”
“We’re looking at football players and dancers,” Hinderaker says, “men who speak principally through movement. So for me to write a play about football players and dancers who just sit around and talk would not only be boring but would be dishonest, I think.”
To help bring all the pieces together, Williams has brought in Adrian Hernandez, a member of the drama department at Boston College High School who has also coached football, to work closely with choreographer/actor Tommy Neblett; physical therapists to be sure the actors don’t hurt themselves; and Tufts University assistant professor Noe Montez, who teaches a course there called “Sports as Performance.”
Williams describes herself as only a casual football fan, mainly “a Super Bowl gal.”
“I didn’t ever have to feel the pressure of learning everything there is about football. It’s all about getting the right people in the room,” she says.
Play by Andrew Hinderaker
Directed by Summer L. Williams
Presented by Company One Theatre
At: Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts,
July 17-Aug. 15
Tickets: $25-$38, www.companyone.org 617-933-8600