What do you get when you take one part Super Mario Bros., another part Scott Pilgrim, combined with Mortal Kombat, and a little bit of The Last Airbender? You get all kinds of awesome, which is pretty much the only way to sum up the Fighter experience. Written, directed, and choreographed by Jose Perez IV, who also plays Izzy, the show is an epic journey about two guys searching for the true meaning of heroism. Whipping into shape a perfect blend of multimedia technology, martial arts, hip-hop, and some hot ripplin’ abs (um, not that I was looking or anything), Fighter will have you on the edge of your seat, ringside and feeling every trickle of blood, sweat, spit and tears on your face – literally (well, maybe not the blood part — at least, I hope not anyway)!
Stepping into the Shell Theater, located in the Times Square Arts Building, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect there to be an interactive “training session” with the company – sure enough, as soon as the house started to fill up, the audience was treated with the sight of the cast doing various warm-up exercises, their shouts and grunts practically reverberating off the walls. Once the lights dimmed and the show opened to a fight sequence choreographed to The White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army,” it was clear that this would only be a taste of what was to come. As previously mentioned, the play surrounds two best friends, Izzy and Jake (Keenan Joliff), as they attempt to find out more about a warrior legend passed down Izzy’s family for generations, in the hopes they could use it in a presentation about Myths and Legends for their summer school class. Of course, as oral history tends to have the same effect as a childhood game of Telephone, major details were eventually omitted, leaving the two to take a road trip, in the hopes that they would find someone to fill the missing pieces. Along the way, they come across a string of Storytellers, each one providing a new piece to the puzzle.
Each time the boys gain a little more knowledge to The Legend of the Warrior, each stage of the story gets re-enacted in a fight scene, with Izzy taking center stage as the Warrior himself. The “flashback” sequences are presented in a similar fashion to the opening scene, often using rousing, head-pounding music to soundtrack Perez’s (literally) kick-ass choreography. One noteable scene even went so far as to use a remix of “The Bed Intruder Song“, with the cast’s sword-wielding motions timed to perfection with the beat! Any show that can not only pull that off, but pull it off successfully definitely gets my vote. In fact, it was a moment that practically brought a tear to my eye (partially out of laughter and partially because, well, it just really touched me okay guys jeez) and made my meme-obsessed self squee with joy, heart all a-flutter. So bravo to the company, Mr. Perez and Mr. Mitch McCoy (who did the fight direction). Run tell dat.
The show itself as a whole, especially considering the aforementioned scene, was a lot funnier than expected, and surprisingly had a lot of heart, too. What really stood out as a central element to the story was that, at its core, Fighter was not just about what it meant to be your own hero — but what it meant to be a friend, as well. After all, every great superhero needs a sidekick, and Joliff’s Jake provided a great source of comic relief, which in turn added a great balance to Perez’s Izzy, who maintained a quiet intensity throughout. Their chemistry made me believe in their onstage friendship, which was ultimately be put to the test when all their hard work finally culminated in their summer class presentation — where something happens that would not only change their lives forever, but change the audience’s perspective on the story itself, and how it was told. In that vein, Fighter was also about storytelling — how it holds the power to inspire and change people’s lives. Each one of us has a story to tell, and every person we meet along the way affects the way it’s told.
Watching the show, I couldn’t help but think about how “homespun” it felt, as if you were watching 20 of some of your best friends put on a show. This is not to say that the execution fell short at all; on the contrary, everything — from the projections (Euthymios Logothetis) to the lighting (Marika Kent) — was well done, the latter being particularly spot-on during the fight sequences. It reminded me of being 10 years old and seeing my cousins perform at Binghampton University’s Barrio Fiesta nights (organized by student-run Philippine-American League), which consisted of modern and traditional Filipino folk dances, as well as various skits — all written, choreographed and performed by the students themselves. There was definitely an organic, “let’s put on a show, guys!” feel about it that I also felt when watching Fighter. It was certainly refreshing and invigorating to see people around my age up there performing and was a thrill to witness. There was also a sense of instant camaraderie between not just the entire company, but also between themselves and the audience, which brought a unique energy to the show.
Aside from the obvious video game and anime references, Fighter also brought to mind another show I had seen, New York Theatre Workshop’s production of The Seven. Based on Aeschylus’ tale, Seven Against Thebes, about two warring sons of King Oedipus, it also included a combination of epic storytelling, journeys, ancient warriors, hip-hop and anachronistic cultural references. I thought the striking similarities in both shows were quite interesting, and were especially evident in the scenes with the various Storytellers. I loved how each Storyteller had their own distinct personalities, particularly the blind runner, Storytime Steven (Frankie Alicea) and the Not-Quite-Hobo-Enough Storytime Hobo (John Charles Ceccherelli). There were also other standouts in the cast, such as Gabe Green as Running Man, and Andy Zou as Mr. Bootymonster (yes, that’s his name).
All in all, Fighter had me laughing, crying, cheering and jeering — but really, mostly laughing. It’s a show that will make you wish you’d taken that Tae Kwon Do class instead of…oh, I don’t know…7 years of jazz dance. No jazz hands here, it’s all about throwing the punches and doin’ butterfly kicks like a boss when the going gets rough.
Images courtesy of Sasha Arutyunova. ‘Fighter’ ran from October 13th-23rd, 2011 at The Shell Theater. For more information about this production, click here. For upcoming productions by Organs of State, click here.