With Andrew Hinderaker’s college-football drama Colossal at the Dallas Theater Center, we get a thoroughly impressive crunch. You want the hard-cracking combat of football as convincing as any theater can make it? You want sweaty young bodies straining and crashing into each other on Astroturf so bright and green it hurts the eyes — and all of this compacted into a taut, little dramatic format?
With Colossal, director Kevin Moriarty has found a play he can fuse his penchant for ingenious theatrics and for exploiting the Wyly Theatre’s advanced technical capabilities — fusing all that with the play’s own heightened athleticism.
And with its thinnish storyline.
The DTC’s Colossal gives us gridiron immediacy in ways both balletic and bruising. High praise goes not just to Moriarty but also to movement consultant Bill Lengfelder, football consultant Noel Scarlett, choreographer Joshua Peugh — the entire creative team, really, for doing something as boldly simple as . . . well, running an ordinary scrimmage on stage. The challenge was giving that scrimmage a lyric yet full-contact credibility.
But no matter how convincing all that grunting muscularity is, there’s a seriously underdeveloped melodrama here. Colossal leaves two major players out on the field with not much of a game plan to help them.
Hinderaker’s intermissionless play is about masculinity, about the way men — straight and gay, father and son — talk to each other. Or don’t talk to each other. They seem to communicate best through their bodies, through shared exertion, conflict, grace and exultation. We meet Mike (Zack Weinstein), an older, paraplegic version of a UT-Longhorn football player. He’s reluctantly enduring physical rehab with a chatty therapist (Steven Michael Walters). Meanwhile, he’s haunted by his hunky younger self (Alex Stoll). Young Mike is an eager warrior on the field, especially when paired with his co-captain Marcus (Khris Davis). They’re running sprints, lifting weights, happily competing at all the football-y things older Mike can only yearn to do.
Obvously, we know something’s going to happen that’ll eventually strap young Mike into that wheelchair. Hinderaker cleverly structures his play as a football game, right down to a big electronic scoreboard, counting off the quarters, and a drumline constantly pounding out the beat. This ups the realism and drama, tightens the sense of confrontation between older and younger Mike as they race against the clock. There’s even a half-time show, an exciting dance-and-percussion sequence choreographed by Peugh, artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance.
Unlike many half-time shows, this one’s actually relevant: Dance is as central to Colossal as football. It’s a contrasting form of masculine physicality and camaraderie. (It’s fascinating watching the performers — some with professional dance backgrounds, some with real football credentials — in the different ways they spin or sprint, lumber or leap.)
Mike’s father Damon (Joel Ferrell) founded a famous dance company, and he bitterly berates Mike when the young man skips dance rehearsals for try-outs. Our bodies, Damon declares, are vehicles for language. Dance is poetry; football is — he grabs his throat in a choke hold. Silence, domination, damage, defeat.
Yet Damon’s anger with his son’s love of football feels odd — or insufficiently grounded. In Texas, as a straight male dancer (or at least a bisexual one), Damon would be grimly familiar with ‘sissy’ insults, with anti-gay bigotry, with what it means to stand (and pirouette) against what many Texans believe is true and manly, properly violent and American.
Such a background would actually make Damon more likely to understand Mike’s decision: By signing up for football, Mike is defying his upbringing. When his father became a dancer, he did the same thing, albeit in the reverse direction. It is, perhaps, a little presumptuous, a little self-flattering, to believe an artist like Damon would — simply because he’s an artist — be more open-minded about such determination. Yet that actually seems to be true of exposure to art in general.
Instead, let’s say Dad is bitter precisely because his whole life, he’s had to suffer from our alpha-dog, Texas-football culture. His son Mike has joined that side, the side that’s dismissed or ignored Damon as less-than-a-man. Such a personal history would certainly provide motivation for Damon’s angry outburst against the game.
Except Hinderaker gives Damon no such history. His anger comes more or less from out of nowhere; it seems like it’s been cut-and-pasted here.
All of which isn’t to say the scenes between Ferrell as Damon and Weinstein as his wounded son don’t feel tender and real, some of the most affecting in the play. With Mike in a wheelchair, Dad becomes nursemaid and cook. But his quiet, loving diligence only reminds Mike of what he’s lost. For him, even tenderness turns bitter.
That’s because Mike lost more than just muscle control. He lost his love, Marcus. That’s not a plot spoiler; the play’s homoeroticism is pretty plain from the start. Admittedly, it must not have been plain enough for the four people who tromped out during the matinee I attended. They tromped out not when the actors were repeatedly shouting obscenities. They sat through all the mock-gay teasing and grab-assing on the field. They tromped out only when Mike and Marcus began some tentative, self-conscious, not explicit, foreplay in a hotel room. So now we know precisely what offended our four evacuees.
In any event, Mike welcomes, even revels in, his relationship with Marcus. Marcus is more careful and closeted. For good reason. Former Rams defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay last year (Colossal was written before then); even so, a young, promising football prospect revealing he’s gay could still seriously burn, possibly torch his chances in the NFL.
This means we’re left with another mysterious motive. Marcus has all the reasons in the world to hide his sexuality. But so does Mike. Why, then, is Marcus the one terrified of ruining his career while Mike seems not particularly panicked about it? Is it because Marcus is black, and the black community — historically, often because of African-American churches — has not been very welcoming to out gays? (See Michael Sam’s own troubled relationships with family members.) But that can’t be so because Hinderaker’s script doesn’t specify Marcus’ race; picking Khris Davis to play the role was a DTC casting choice.
So we’re left with one young athlete who’s careless or simply exuberant about his homosexuality, while another one is more cautious, more ashamed. Sure, that happens. But why? Why here? Why does Marcus respond differently? It’s an utterly crucial difference to the story, but once again, we’re given insufficient background to understand what motivates a key figure, a key decision.
Because of Michael Sam’s courage in coming out and because of the NFL’s dodging and foot-dragging when it comes to the many brain and spinal traumas among its players, Colossal has a ton of in-the-news immediacy. But for all of his play’s theatrical and thematic grip, Hinderaker is actually updating a very old story. From Achilles’ wrath over the death of Patroclus to A. E. Housman’s poem ‘To An Athlete Dying Young’ and, especially, that favorite male movie-weepie from 1971, Brian’s Song, it’s the story of a young male champion cut down in his prime (especially a young male champion with a seemingly homoerotic sidekick). All that’s needed is to substitute football for war and paraplegia for death, and we can hear the neo-classic, Greco-Roman echoes pounding across the Wyly’s bright green stage.
But by having Mike survive in a wheelchair, Hinderaker puts a poignant perspective (and twist) on the old tale of loss and glory. From Homer to Housman to ABC’s Movie of the Week, the death of a young warrior/athlete blends the tragic fleetingness of youth with death’s crystallized preservation of that peak moment. It’s a memory both aching and splendid. The implication is that life after such triumph (on the playing field or the battlefield) will only fade in luster. Housman even congratulates his heroic runner for dying at just the right moment: “Now you will not swell the rout / Of lads that wore their honors out / Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man.” Brian’s Song wordlessly manages much the same torn emotion with slo-mo flashbacks of Brian Piccolo (James Caan) at his handsome peak, before cancer claimed him. We grieve what was lost but that pain only amplifies the shining moment of success, friendship and masculine beauty.
It’s the elegiac impulse — to look back in mourning and celebration — and Colossal certainly expresses it. But then Hinderaker asks, OK, so now what? What happens if Achilles survived — as a cripple? It’d be simple enough to simplify and sentimentalize such a turn, paste over the pain by making it a bit of easy inspiration: The damaged hero turns to a different heroism, reclaiming his life — and he succeeds, becoming as good as new. One recalls Eddie Dowling — the co-director of the premiere of The Glass Menagerie with Margo Jones — trying to convince Tennessee Williams the play’s ending was too bleak. We should see Lara, he argued, without her leg brace and a title card would flash: “Orthopedics do such wonderful things!”
It’s true Colossal leaves us with Mike returning to his rehab therapy. Recovery and reconciliation are possible. But Hinderaker has him do this only after Mike’s realized his great moment of self-sacrifice wasn’t really witnessed. That’s a very modern, complex moment. First, it means we and Mike understand something his intended audience never does. Mike’s decision is never fully appreciated. It’s as if Achilles tearfully avenged the death of his lover, Patroclus — only to be speared by some no-name foot soldier, and no one really saw any of it happen anyway. Not exactly the hero’s death Achilles was after — to live forever in other men’s minds, gory yet glorious.
But this also means the young hero isn’t frozen by memory at his golden moment. His life is changed abruptly, drastically, and he must confront that change, painfully, reluctantly and slowly. So Colossal isn’t an elegy after all. Nor is its narrative basically about love, our lack of acceptance of gay love, football-as-a-metaphor-for-male-interaction, yada yada — although it encompasses all those things. It’s about something that has relatively little to do, really, with young athletes or soldiers. Or even young heroes in general.
It’s about accepting one’s choices, accepting what wretched limits life has forced on you despite your best intentions and talents. It’s about living past your golden youth, your first grand passions.
It’s about growing up.
Full-disclosure postscript: Last April, Bruce Wood of the Bruce Wood Dance Project sent me a copy of the Colossal script. He was going to be the show’s choreographer — his first collaboration with Moriarty and the Dallas Theater Center. He wanted to meet for lunch to discuss the play. For some reason, he thought I’d be a good sounding board — a critic who got his arm broken in eighth-grade football and has never endured a full game since, not even watching one on TV. Bruce was cagey about the whole thing, which only made me suspect he had an exciting idea he wanted to spring.
I read the script, texted him about lunch. He didn’t reply immediately — which was not unusual with Bruce. Two weeks later, he was dead.
You may know Bruce was the son of a West Texas football coach. He quit football — he was simply too small, he said, he was getting stomped out there on the field. He left Texas to study dance at the School of American Ballet in New York. So Colossal was in Bruce’s bones, physically and emotionally. In fact, when he told me he was going to choreograph it, he wiggled his eyebrows, as if to say, Gonna have some fun with this.
I bring all this up to admit Hinderaker’s play, unavoidably, has an aching sense of loss attached to it for me — as I’m sure it does for Moriarty and for people like Harry Feril, a longtime Bruce Wood dancer who’s the show’s dance captain and appears as a football player in it. Whether that biases me for or against Colossal, I don’t know. I do know the play’s themes of lost potential left me feeling Bruce’s death all over again — feeling I’d never get to ask him about the father-son relationship, about the youthful gay passion, whether any of that rang true for him.
By now, you may have figured out this postscript is meant to explain why — although no one actually dies in the play — watching Colossal had me recalling the classic traditions of the elegy, memorializing the athlete-hero dying in his glory.
I wish Bruce had never provided that particular insight.