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59E59 Theatre, New York

5.0Reviewer's Rating

A thrilling, inventive, physical, breathless re-telling of the Battle of the Sexes – the celebrated 1970s Houston Astrodome tennis match that was a watershed moment in gender equality – Balls is both a look back and a contextualization of the event retold in a creative play-by-play experience that leaves the watcher uplifted and reminds us we still have far to go.

A voiceover introduction explains sexual bias since the beginning of time, and moves immediately onto the tennis court, cleverly painted on the stage floor and up the walls for a spectacular visual pop. Bobby Riggs, played wonderfully by Donald Corren, displays textbook sexism and a focus on money, while Billie Jean King – portrayed energetically by Ellen Tamaki – is at the center of much more than a mere tennis match.

Balls 59E59 Theatre

Balls shows how King’s complicated personal life was as much on display as her proclivity on the court. Her African-American manager Marilyn Barnett is also her lover, their relationship hidden from public view. Barnett sues King for ending their relationship and forcibly outs her. When Zakiya Iman Markland as Barnett sings “I am Woman”, the era’s feminist anthem, it takes new shades when sung by an intersectional figure suffering from a broken heart. Her husband tells Ms. Magazine that King had an abortion, causing another uproar and step forward in the woman’s rights movement, but at her expense. King’s renown is due in part to these two figures revealing her private life against her will, the unwitting locus of gay, abortion, and women’s rights. She wins the match but loses her endorsements, her money, and even her will to play the game.

The play smartly moves away from the heaviness on and off the court: a short history of the tennis ball, done in fluorescent light, a surreal, newsy sidebar delivered by the disembodied voice of the referee. The Ref provides an international and societal context to the game, noting major milestones, laws passed, even events in the natural world that signify gender parity and fluidity.

To show the resonant impact of the Battle, the playwrights wove in a side story of the ball boy and girl who fall in love at the match. They marry and grow – together and apart – within a society rapidly transforming. Elisha Mudly as the Ball Girl becomes a second powerful centerpiece: a modern woman who doesn’t pretend sex with her partner means ownership or monogamy, a working mother who battles her conservative husband on abortion rights, a modern woman striving for personal definition outside marriage, and finally liberation, “woke” on her own terms. The scene where their marriage is celebrated – even as the free love moment is in full swing and gender parity is at odds with the confines of the marital institution at the time – is an ebullient celebration complete with disco ball and the entire cast dancing to “Jungle Boogie.”

Balls 59E59 Theatre

Told with impossibly tight choreography, funny interludes and unabashed energy, directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint have taken an already creative script from Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery and fashioned it into an innovative, ambitious, unforgettable performance. The show concludes with the ensemble taking their bows with the men and women partitioned by the court net; as they dance off the stage to Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom (a song he wrote for King), we’re reminded of the gender war still going on today

  • Drama
  • By Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery
  • Directors: Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint
  • Cast: Ellen Tamaki, Donald Corren, Alex J. Gould, Dante Jeanfelix, Zakiya Iman Markland, Olivia McGiff, Elisha Mudly, Cristina Pitter, Richard Saudek, Danny Bernardi
  • 59E59 Theatre, New York
  • Until 25th February 2018

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