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Neveu’s ‘The Opponent’ a knockout at A Red Orchid

The Opponent - Guy Van Swearingen Kamal Angelo Bolden | PHOTO BY MICHAEL BROSILOW

The Opponent - Guy Van Swearingen and Kamal Angelo Bolden | PHOTO BY MICHAEL BROSILOW

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When: Through Dec. 2

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Tickets: $25-$30

Info: (312) 943-8722;

Updated: November 25, 2012 11:39AM

Boxing is the abiding metaphor in Brett Neveu’s play, “The Opponent.” But there is nothing metaphorical about the sweat that flies off the faces of the two combatants in the work’s thrillingly visceral world premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre.

This terrifically muscular production, which opened Monday night under the rope-a-dope direction of Karen Kessler — and is punched out to perfection by actors Kamal Angelo Bolden and Guy Van Swearingen — is a superb blend of physical and psychological warfare. It would be difficult to imagine a better rendering of Neveu’s insightful, glove-tight tale of two men whose dreams of success are undermined by their innate sense of failure that morphs into self-fulfilling prophecy.

The action takes place in the training ring of the Rock and Anvil Boxing Gym in Lafayette, La., and designer Joey Wade, who devises photo-realist environments more than traditional sets, has given audiences coming to the intimate Red Orchid space ringside seats.

Working out with the gym’s small, solidly built, graying owner-trainer, former fighter Tremont “Tre” Billiford (Van Swearingen), is Donell Fuseles (Bolden), a luminous young boxer with huge, ideally sculpted arms, a quick-stepping, Muhammad Ali-like grace, an exceptionally handsome face and sharp wit. Fuseles spends nearly all of the play’s first act going through strenuous warmups with Billiford in preparation for an important fight set for later that night with a guy who has been successful enough to buy several houses and cars.

From the get-go you can sense the subtle ways in which Billiford instills doubt in Fuseles, undermining his confidence in ways that only someone who has experienced failure himself can do. Fuseles is not blind to what is happening, but he might just see it as a subtle challenge, or he might already have internalized the sense that he is not top champion material on some level.

The play’s second act flashes forward five years as Fuseles, an itinerant fighter working the southern circuit (and with a wife and child he leaves too often), unexpectedly returns to the gym for a few practice sessions. Of course he has really come to deal with some unfinished business with the man who has been the trickiest of all his “opponents.”

Almost every minute of this show is played in a state of full-out action, with the two actors bringing as much emotional intelligence to the work as formidable physical skills. Bolden, a tremendously gifted actor, is nothing short of poetry in motion (and I confess, I find boxing a horrifying sport). And Von Swearingen is wholly inside his role as an exhausted, haunted man whose own failures clearly sow the seeds of failure in others.

Neveu’s play — which wisely makes no overt mention of race, even though one man is white and the other black — is fascinating for the way in which it captures the strange camaraderie between two people who are, in the final analysis, their own worst enemies.

NOTE: Michael Shannon (star of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), a fiercely loyal ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theatre, flew in from New York on his one day off from the Broadway production of Craig Wright’s play, “Grace,” to catch the opening and will return for the company’s 20th anniversary gala benefit on Nov. 12.

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