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Taut, thrilling production of 'The Royale' at Cleveland Play House punches above its weight class (review)

By Andrea Simakis, The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio - In the opening scene of "The Royale," two men enter a boxing ring shaped like a giant drum to great fanfare. Their arrival is heralded by Max (the stentorian-voiced Leo Marks), a carnival barker of a referee, his words reverberating through space.

In this corner,
With a wingspan of a mighty black albatross, 
Please welcome,
To his first ever professional fight,
Your challenger,

Purley "Fresh Fish" Hawkins!

His opponent needs no introduction, but this hardly dissuades Max. Boxing is part theater, after all.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The man you came for,
The man who casts a shadow in the dark,

Your Negro Heavyweight Champion,

You know him,
You love him,

Jay - "The Sport" - Jackson!

The nickname suits the nervous newcomer. Before the fight begins, "Fish" (Johnny Ramey, sad-eyed and sweet) is wiggling on the end of Jay's hook, fixed there by the Sport's relentless boasting and swagger.

"Hey kid, how many rounds you want?" Jay asks. "What? Two? Three?"

"Um," Fish responds.

" 'Um' ain't a number, boy!" Jay taunts. "How many rounds 'fore you get friendly with the canvas?"

As Jay, Preston Butler III is a coil of muscle and moxie. His every aspect argues he's ready to spring, to devastate, to outmaneuver all comers. He's an Adonis in black trunks, the sash tied around his waist as red as a matador's cape.

We know it's over before it begins and still, we lean in, pulled by the gravitational force of this gripping, pulse-pounding production, staged thrillingly - and well - in the round. It's one of the smartest uses of the adaptable Outcalt Theatre, designed to change shape depending on the needs of a show, since it opened in 2010.

Marco Ramirez's "The Royale," the anchor production of the 2018 New Ground Theatre Festival, is inspired by the life of the first African-American world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, the spiritual father of Muhammad Ali who set out to right the wrongs of racism with his fists and his wits.

Cleveland Play House associate artistic director Robert Barry Fleming, his superb team of designers and as perfect a cast as anyone could hope for capture the intensity of the sport without anyone landing a punch. No hard rights to the solar plexus or chin or, God forbid, the head, now that we know what we know about concussions.

Instead, actors stalk the edge of the ring, often with their backs to each other and facing the audience, a brilliant use of the always challenging arena theater model.

We don't just hear Jay's longtime trainer Wynton (a subtle, seen-it-all Brian D. Coats) shouting direction and encouragement, Jay's gibes and Fish's weak responses. We're also privy to the running dialogue each man is having with himself, in his head.

When Jay decides it's time to reel Fish in, he leaps straight into the air and comes down on the mat with a shattering stomp. The move is balletic and brutal. Fish staggers, then falls in slow motion.

Great boxing movies can give us all the outer drama of the sweet and viscous science - the sound of breaking bone, the gasp of wind being knocked from lungs, the spray of blood and teeth. "The Royale" takes us into the interior fears and struggles, the strategy and keen minds at play.

Like his real-life counterparts Jackson and Ali, Jay doesn't rack up knockouts with his lethal swing alone. He's also got a dangerous mind. Too dangerous, it turns out, for Jim Crow America.

Jay wants to take on Bernard "The Champ" Bixby, the retired world heavyweight titleholder, to prove he's the best there is - black or white. Front-page news.

Max tries to talk him out of it, telling him the country won't accept such a breaking of the color barrier - and neither will Bixby.

The Champ, says Max, won't come out of retirement "for a Negro."

"How would you like it if I asked Jay to get in the ring with a goddamn grizzly bear?" Max asks Wynton.

Burton's Jay absorbs the verbal wallop with a barely perceptible twitch, then punches back: He'll find another promoter if Max doesn't deliver a fight with Bixby.

Later, Max has an offer. Bixby will return to the ring if Jay agrees to let "The Champ" pocket 90 percent of the earnings, win or lose. Over Max's objections, Jay accepts.

"And, Max, for the record," Jay says with cool menace, "I ain't no grizzly bear."

In every scene, we witness some sort of battle, whether the weapons are hands are words.

Ramirez's dialogue is taut as a fighter's bicep and just as powerful.

Fleming matches the strength of the playwright's language in every facet of his flawless production. Everything is lean, no fat anywhere. The set by Jason Ardizzone-West is empty of everything but bodies and light.

The drumlike quality of his ring is a physical expression of the "body percussion" that is the music of "The Royale." Actors snap, clap, slap their thighs and stomp, human rhythms that echo the rhythmic hits Jay delivers to a heavy bag.

We also hear rapid breathing and imagine a boxer, stretched to his limit, his pulse hammering, his heart beating. The production has a poignant, visceral quality; it's thick with sweat and noise and life.

On the night of the bout, before he steps onto the canvas and into history, he is visited by his sister Nina (Nikkole Salter, imperious and beautiful).

She comes with news from home, armed with pictures of the nephews he hasn't seen for years. Then she delivers a sneak uppercut to the jaw, handing him a book her studious son ordered from a catalog. It arrived at the general store, a hideous message scrawled on its cover page. We never learn what it says, but our imaginations fill in the terrible blanks. Everybody in town knows who his uncle is.

Furious, Jay vows to find the author.

"You gon' 'box' this problem away?" she asks.

She tells another story: Four men arguing, two black, two white, over who was the better fighter got into a brawl that turned deadly - and not for the white men.

Her point? If Jay wins, his people lose. She asks him to take a fall.

Imagine such a request being made of a LeBron James or another glorious champion of our age - a form of blasphemy in the face of God-given talent. Then imagine the kind of world where an adult would direct such hate toward a child, and we understand where Nina is coming from.

Though these times are blessedly more evolved, consider the chorus of voices telling black athletes to shut up and dribble. Remember the outrage provoked when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to protest the killing of unarmed young black men by police.

Nina's blow is one from which Jay can scarcely recover. The insult follows him into the ring, where he doesn't just face Bixby, but Nina, too, her voice pounding through his skull.

It's then I realized I wasn't watching a sports drama so much as an American tragedy, as shrewd and bruising as anything written by Miller, Williams or O'Neill.

No split decision here. "The Royale" is magnificent, the final moments as startling as the taste of blood in the mouth.

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Between Riverside and Crazy

This is a marvelous production, due in large part to director Robert Barry Fleming recognizing that the play contains social commentary and truth telling on par with the works of Lanford Wilson, employs powerful and poignant language reminiscent of Tennessee Williams and, like Arthur Miller, finds immense heroism residing in broken people.

Fleming respects the work by allowing it to speak for itself without distraction. And he has cast exceptional out-of-town talent who bring both the comedy and the drama to the forefront with remarkable dexterity, realism...

-Bob Abelman, Cleveland Jewish News

In his directorial debut at the Play House, associate artistic director Robert Barry Fleming keeps the nasty wit of playwright Stephen Aldy Guirgis at the center, delivering a corrosive tragicomedy laced with Guirgis' famous profanity (never have so many mothers been verbally defiled) and motor-mouth word play.

- Andrea Simakis, The Plain Dealer

The CPH production, as directed by Robert Barry Fleming, the theater’s associate artistic director, in his local directing debut, is well-paced, nicely nuanced, and plays the humor against the angst. The cast is excellent and nicely textures their performances, walking the thin line between comedy and drama.

- Roy Berko, Cleveland Cool


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Caroline or Change

Director-choreographer Robert Barry Fleming finds sobering humanity and redeeming humor in author-lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori’s moving ensemble piece.

-Michael Grossberg, The Columbus Dispatch

...it’s a testament to Fleming that this production moves as fluidly and naturally as it does, his liquid choreography understands how people move. It slips into dance without ever stooping to a moment of transition, there’s no “We’re dancing now,” suddenly the movements just catch fire. He understands the delicate balance between fantasy and reality this play needs and the micro- and macro-rhythms.

-Richard Sanford, Columbus Underground


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Destiny of Desire

Full-blown production numbers break out here and there which features eclectic choreography by Robert Barry Fleming...And, my gosh, even each scene change/transition is an amusing event in itself. The cast doesn't just place a doorway or a curtain or a set piece down at their marks with determined precision, they frikkin ballet dance (!) these things to their places on the stage (the hoisting of the enormous chandelier as the set transforms to the Castillo mansion is a particularly funny, exaggerated sequence).

-Michael L. Quintos, Broadway World

They ...move with lascivious grace through the show’s numerous song-and-dance numbers (per... Robert Barry Fleming).

- Kevin Green, NewCity Chicago

Most of the actors do play more than one role, and there are lots of set changes that are done by the cast, but done as a sort of dance (choreographer Robert Barry Fleming has done a superb job) that is indeed very “camp”!

Alan Bresloff, Around the Town Chicago

The show is crazy comical, colorful and continually provocative. Jose Luis Valenzuela, assisted by choreographer Robert Barry Fleming and musical director Rosino Serrano, guides this fast-moving production and brings out the best in his gifted acting ensemble.

-Colin Douglas, Chicago Theater Review

The flair of Valenzuela's production is accentuated by Robert Barry Fleming's choreography, which has the actors float across the stage with their arms aloft after finishing a scene.

- Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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If you missed the Juneau run of Perseverance Theatre’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and you’re planning on being in Anchorage in April, I highly recommend you catch the production at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. This is a standout show, anchored by riveting performances...directed by Robert Barry Fleming...As Brick says in the second act, “Communication is -- awful hard between people.” For me this is part of what makes this story timeless and accessible. I was grateful to see it brought to life so beautifully. 

-Amy Fletcher, Juneau Empire

Milvotchkee, Visconsin

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Director Robert Barry Fleming has experienced Alzheimer’s firsthand in caring for his ill mother, and his sensitive, nuanced direction is brutally realistic.

-Pam Kragen, San Diego Union-Tribune

Stick Fly

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I suppose you could call “Stick Fly” an upper-class sitcom, but what sets it apart from most of that genre is playwright Diamond’s facility for clever, intelligent and engaging dialogue of the Aaron Sorkin variety, aided here by terrific production values including Fleming’s excellent direction.

-Jean Lowerison, San Diego Gay and Lesbian News

She Loves Me

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In a word, the production, directed by Robert Barry Fleming, is wonderful, and delivers a version of the much-revived show that is about as good as it can be.

-Pat Craig, Contra Costa Times

The Little Dog Laughed

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One unexpected delight of the Diversionary production is the speed and expertise with which director Robert Barry Fleming moves his cast from one mode to the other, never skipping a beat or missing a laugh in Beane's crackling, one-liner-strewn writing. Fleming...makes a strong directorial debut at Diversionary.

-Ann Marie Welsh, North County Times

There is much serious (and cynical) commentary about Hollywood and the closet in The Little Dog Laughed, and quite a sweet love story as well, but with Beane writing the lines, you’re never more than ten seconds from the next laugh, especially with a cast as splendid as the one assembled here under the crackerjack direction of Robert Barry Fleming, who never lets them miss a comic beat.

-Steven Stanley, StageScene LA

Ella: The Musical

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"Ella"...hits all the right notes [and] is a near-guaranteed pleasure. Cason and most of the company in director Robert Barry Fleming's production rise well above that level.

-Robert Hurwitt, San Francisco Chronicle