“Dancing with Giants” Shows the Fight Outside the Ring
Playwright and director David Feldshuh’s world premiere play “Dancing with Giants” is about boxers, but the play isn’t about boxing. It’s about the fighting that went on outside of the ring for German Max Schmeling, African American Joe Louis and the lesser known Joe Jacobs, also known as “Yussel the Muscle,” Schmeling’s Jewish boxing manager. As Jacobs persuades Schmeling to play to the American press, Schmeling’s victories and rise to fame in both America and Nazi Germany strain their friendship as agendas from all sides, including their own, pull them between politics, passion and safety. In “Dancing with Giants” at Illusion Theater Feb. 7-24, Feldshuh and his phenomenal cast examine just how much the athlete can symbolize and make you wish chasing a dream were a little bit simpler.
Each actor was masterful in their performance, but oftentimes there was something in the way that stopped their synergy from igniting, whether it was the sometimes distant blocking or the script itself. With Yussel, played by a sly and mirthful Tovah Feldshuh (David Feldshuh’s six time Emmy- and Tony-nominated sister), there wasn’t enough depth in the character design to do more than weave in and out of the giants instead of facing them as an equal dance partner. That wasn’t Feldshuh’s fault, though. Her understanding of the character was what grounded the larger-than-life presence and all of Jacobs’ fast-talking “specialties” into something believable and enjoyable as she flitted about, her head barely reaching Sam Bardwell’s (Max Schmeling) shoulder, humming and dancing.
The scenes where Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (James Cunningham), Yussel and the reticent Schmeling are the best moments of the play. Then you can see how deliberate Bardwell’s pacing and tension are, and you can experience Cunninghams finesse as an actor as you sense his capacity (and execution) of evil while still seeing his own struggle for power among Hitler’s ranks. Yussel, of course, smooths over it all, striking up deals and making jokes even as he hopes to spit in Hitler’s face.
You can’t tell Schmeling’s story without Joe Louis, though, and Ricky Morisseau steps up to the plate flipping his Louis between a hunter sizing up his prey and a relaxed, rags-to-riches man who just wants to enjoy the ride. The scene where he meets Schmeling was another variation of a power struggle, this time that beautiful line of rival versus friend, but even their chemistry on stage is pushed a little too far as their jovial reunion makes for a jarring tone shift during the ending minutes of the play. (The beginning two-year time jump gave a similar jolt, but smart headline usage (thank you Jonathan Carlson) set the pace mercifully quickly and hammered home the historical aspect.)
David Feldshuh paints a story that, as we have the Olympics in full swing and the echoes of NFL controversies, seems particularly relevant. Although you might find yourself drawn more to Schmeling’s development than Yussel’s consistent assuredness, just as we start the play with Tovah Feldshuh’s captivating us, so we end with her in a moment that could be a celebration of life or a painted smile on the tragedies of the past.
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