“Colossal,” written by Andrew Hinderaker and presented by Southern Rep, astounds and fascinates like no other piece of theater you are likely to view this year.
With its captivating blend of blood-pumping football plays and gorgeously compelling modern dance, this percussive, movement-based production creates images that will linger in your mind and resonate in your soul for a long time.
Structured like a football game — complete with a scoreboard clock that counts down the 15 minute quarters in real time — the play concerns Mike, a college gridiron star destined to be a first-round NFL draft pick until he suffers a catastrophic spinal injury on the field while trying to protect his co-captain, with whom he is in love.
The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks, 10 months after Mike is left wheelchair-bound.
Mike is played by two actors: disabled Mike (Tobias Forrest), full of anger, tension and grief; and young Mike (Ross Britz), cocky, charismatic and movie-star handsome.
Mike’s father, Damon (Jeffrey Gunshol), an eminent dancer and head of a prestigious company, had hoped to see his talented son follow his footsteps into the world of modern dance.
But young Mike had other plans. “I’m the only son in the history of the United States who disappointed his father by choosing football over dance,” he says.
Damon responds with regrettable anger. “You do this, and I will never speak to you again,” he says — thereby creating a family wound in need of repair as much as Mike’s broken body.
Jerry (Leon Contavesprie), Mike’s tough-love physical therapist, pushes Mike to let go of the past and undertake the charge of rehabilitation of both body and soul.
The backstory also traces the relationship between young Mike and his teammate, Marcus (DC Paul), who fears that being outed will ruin his chances in the NFL.
In a scene of vulnerable tenderness, Marcus quietly agrees to one day join Mike “at a little chateau in the South of France” — where no one cares about their love. But things don’t work out that way.
The thundering drumline accompaniment (Kevin O’Donnell, Saul Posada) with its pounding beats of drums and crashes of cymbals, creates a hellish atmosphere, pushing the characters to levels of hysteria.
The players (an incredibly talented ensemble) do a wonderful job blending Jeffrey Gunshol’s breathtaking dance routines and Lester Ricard’s muscular football choreography. At times the football plays — drilled with a military intensity by Coach (Zeb Hollins III) — move in slow-motion, or reverse, or stop-action.
Gunshol, an elegant dancer, creates a lonely figure as Damon. The dance that ends the show induces chest-pounding emotions.
Director Aimee Hayes masterfully orchestrates sound and silence, movement and stillness, robust action and delicate intimacy. She nails every scene.
All the actors are superb. Forrest, a wheelchair actor himself, exudes a synthesis of sorrow, anger, reluctance and ultimately a progression to forgiveness and reconciliation.
Contavesprie’s Jerry is affable, no-nonsense, wise and probably the best-written character in the show. He artfully puts all the perplexity into proportion, telling Mike: “You didn’t get hurt because you loved someone. You got hurt because you played a game that hurts people.”
Paul, as Marcus, is all caution and quiet dignity. The moment we discover he never actually saw Mike’s injury hits hard.
The standout performance is by Britz. His young Mike bursts with life and the indestructibility of youth. He’s one of those rare actors who is so present you can’t stop watching, wondering what he will do next.
The play presents many complex, current issues. It’s about football and the devastating injuries it causes, as well as homophobia and sexual identity, disability and recovery, interracial friendship and love, resolving family discord and letting go of a celebrated past.
It’s a seminal work from a playwright with a future as promising as Southern Rep’s.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.