It is Block Party time again at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, CA and if you are feeling the winter blues or just need a shot of adrenaline to counteract the malaise induced by current events, you should definitely catch the first of three productions this season–For The Love Of (Or, The Roller Derby Play) by Gina Femia, directed and choreographed by Rhonda Kohl.
Hollywood’s own Theatre of NOTE originally staged the production that Center Theatre Group chose to open their third [and now, thankfully, annual] Block Party in a continuing effort to support Los Angeles’ intimate [read, tiny black box] theatre scene. Each of the three productions chosen gets a two week run consisting of 12 performances – the first Friday of each run is a ‘pay what you can’ evening that literally affords the community an opportunity to come to the theatre and see a show that might not otherwise have landed on such a prominent stage. Not only do the three companies chosen get to share their work, but they also get the full support of The Center Theatre Group and their staff to accomplish their goals of funding, marketing and staging their work.
If you’ve never experienced roller derby and have a tendency to reject the unknown you might struggle a bit to connect with the characters in this play but even the most dispassionate audience member will simply not be able to resist the ladies on this team. The cast is one thousand percent committed and includes Crystal Diaz (Diaz de los Muertos), Elinor Gunn (Michelle), Liesel Hanson (Squeaky Mouse), Faith Imafidon (Trauma Queen), Cindy Lin (Jammy From The Block), Nadia Marina (Frida Call-It Low), Lynn Odell (Hot Flash), Alina Phelan (Andrea the Vagiant), Briana Price (Joy Ride), Nicole Gabriella Scipione (Ruth Bader Getsit), Yolanda Snowball (Anna-Stecia), Jenny Soo (Prosecute-Her), Nancy Stone (Maid of Metal) and Tania Verafield (Lizzie Lightning).
No those aren’t typos, those are Derby names and if you come to see the play you can come up with your own via a helpful guide posted in the lobby and get your photo taken sporting some Derby gear props. There’s a real sense of freedom in Derby and that is so alluring it’s easy to imagine how Joy Ride (Briana Price) becomes so committed. Andrea the Vagiant (Alina Phelan) manages the Brooklyn Scallywags, a team that’s good enough to make it to the championship but also one that has internal issues in need of working out. Most of those issues seem to stem from Lizzie Lightning (Tania Verafield), a risk-taking, win-seeking Jammer [think Quarterback for shorthand] who not only wants to win on the track, she wants to do it in the boldest way possible.
Lizzie’s choices are not safe ones, on or off the track, as she shepherds rookie Joy Ride (Briana Price) through trials, practices, and matches all with the goal of sort of [kind of?] winning her heart. It feels more like a power struggle than a romance but Joy has her reasons for admiring Lizzie and that’s where things get complicated. Joy lives with Michelle (Elinor Gunn), her girlfriend since college who she shares an apartment in Jersey. Michelle was an artist when they first met but now she focuses more on a job title and a paycheck and this commitment to all things ‘adult’ clashes harshly with Joy Ride’s newly realized love for her team. The play balances its time between this one relationship and the larger group that is the Brooklyn team. Michelle has changed a lot since they first met but now Joy is changing in ways neither predicted and that means trouble for their once smooth home life.
This gets supercharged when Michelle loses her job and is only able to find a new one in Portland, OR. The two argue about the move eliciting near play-stopping laughter when Michelle said: “Portland is the new Brooklyn” in an effort to keep Joy in her life. Each of the characters except for Lizzie shows us a private moment in their lives away from the track and some of them are quite moving. A look into Hot Flash’s (Lynn Odell) life at home reveals clothes on the floor and a mess we gather she’s always just shy of cleaning up but her conversation with her unseen husband gets particularly endearing when she asks him if he still likes her and his unheard affirmative response makes her turn giggly giddy as she runs off stage pursued by her amorous husband. That laugh is a pure delight – bottle it and you could make a fortune.
Quite moving in a different way is Squeaky Mouse’s (Liesel Hanson) practice graduation speech. When she swears, she catches and corrects herself in a moment that elicited a charmed laugh from the audience. When she talks about being short and therefore feeling small her whole life, looking “at this world full of giants, scared”, it is moving in ways the play might never have anticipated in this current climate.
These women are strong and weak, fragile and unbreakable – essentially, they feel very real save for two exceptions. We hear Diaz de los Muertos (Crystal Diaz) argue on the phone with a man named David who we assume is her boyfriend but we do not get to ‘see’ her with David. Instead, we watch her visit her brother’s grave. Though we learn she is more vulnerable than we might have suspected, the reality of her brother’s loss doesn’t seem apparent in other scenes where she reacts with the group. Ms. Diaz is a strong actress capable of bringing shades of emotion to this beat that don’t feel earned in the script.
Same goes for Lizzie (Tania Verafield). We gather over time that she has trouble with commitment, with intimate connections and making them last and though we sense depths in the character thanks to the powerful work from Ms. Verafield, the play doesn’t really let us know what she wants. To win at all costs? Either on the track or in her love life? It’s hazy and that has the power to distract us in moments when we really want to be locked in with these women. There’s a scene where Joy and Lizzie are waiting under a storefront awning for the rain to lessen before they dash for the car. Joy lures Lizzie into some childlike puddle jumping shenanigans and Lizzie takes this as a cue to kiss – but we can’t really feel where either action’s motivation comes from. Earlier there’s a scene where Joy comes to Lizzie for a tattoo and Lizzie directly talks about what she would like to do [“I could run my lips up and down your neck. My lips are like butterfly wings, flapping up and down your neck…”]. When Joy tells her to stop, we sense it has caused real harm to Lizzie that makes us only want to know more about her.
That said, the play isn’t focused on handing us all the answers either, which is best illustrated in an ending that doesn’t spell out any detail about how things might resolve – not for the team, not for Joy, not for anyone she knows and might love at that point. That isn’t a bad thing in the end for we feel Joy has one connection that she will not easily let go of – the one that leads her back to the track no matter what it might cost her.
Physically, the play looks extremely demanding in the most exciting way. Scene changes take place in rapid quick time behind groups or singular women ‘practicing’ their moves downstage and in the aisles. None of the actors wear roller skates but our mind easily fills that detail in. For the most part, it looks as though no one leaves the stage – neither the Scallywags nor the Announcers/Officials that keep the story rolling and keep the games going. All of the actors feel like they are in their element but Briana Price, in particular, finds a way to translate an emotional moment into an embarrassed shrug or sideways glance that truly stands out. The only moment where her physicality did not serve her well was in that aforementioned tattoo scene where she moved in reaction to the pain to such an extent that anyone who has had even the smallest tattoo would know, there’s no way that design is going to come out well.
The set designed by Eli Smith still reflects the rigors a small space can demand on a play with modular elements that can transform into a bedroom in Jersey, a tattoo parlor, a rainy street corner after in Brooklyn late at night but most of all the locker room in Coney Island where the Brooklyn Scallywags practice their derby skills. The largest visual element is the track itself, illustrated with white lines over gray, spilling out over the walls making it immediately clear that the track and the team mean more than anything else to these women. The costumes designed by Vicki Conrad are so much fun – they echo each character’s personality in ways costumes sometimes fail to do and that successful connection makes the world feel all the richer given Mr. Smith’s limited color palette in the set. Some lighting cues designed by Rose Malone felt more distracting than illuminating [the rain scene with Joy and Lizzie was peppered with shifting blue lights that drew the eye when all we wanted was to watch those women act] but others defy the normal convention and add spice to this already visually appealing piece [Squeaky Mouse’s graduation lights as she moves across the space for one].
The play was originally produced for Theatre of NOTE by David Bickford, Kelly “Lucretia Hott” Lingen and Jenny Soo. Sound Design by Gilly Moon. The Production Stage Manager is Brooke Baldwin. The Stage Manager is Maggie Swing. For the Love Of is approx. two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Performances run through March 17th.
Center Theatre Group, one of the nation’s preeminent arts and cultural organizations, is Los Angeles’ leading nonprofit theatre company, which, under Artistic Director Michael Ritchie, programs seasons at the 736-seat Mark Taper Forum and 1600 to 2100-seat Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles, and the 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. In addition to presenting and producing the broadest range of theatrical entertainment in the country, Center Theatre Group is one of the nation’s leading producers of ambitious new works through commissions and world premiere productions and a leader in interactive community engagement and education programs that reach across generations, demographics, and circumstance to serve Los Angeles.
The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Free three hour covered parking at City Hall with validation (available in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby). Tickets for Block Party are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to the performance. Tickets for each individual production range from $25 – $77 (ticket prices are subject to change). A Block Party Party Pass is available for $75, which includes a ticket to all three productions as well as a complimentary cocktail (or non-alcoholic beverage) at each performance. The Party Pass is available by phone or in-person now through March 17.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.