By Charles Brousse
What would you do if you were a student in a college playwriting class and the assignment was to write something that would be next to impossible to stage? Andrew Hinderaker took up the challenge while a graduate student at the University of Texas, and the result (after necessary adjustments) was Colossal, an experimental work that identified him as someone to watch after it received a National New Play-sponsored “rolling world premiere” at five regional theaters during 2014-2015. Its first Bay Area production debuted at the San Francisco Playhouse last weekend, and I suspect that it is just the beginning of our acquaintance with this gifted young writer.
A Texas-based football fan, Hinderaker decided to try to compress a gridiron’s 6,000 square yards of grass onto a theater’s few square feet of playing space. The first step was to create atmosphere. It’s game day. There are cheers from the invisible crowd as the players, armored with helmets and shoulder pads, go through their warm-up exercises in preparation for kickoff. A coach/motivator (Dave Maier) predicts victory as he barks his last-minute instructions. The three-piece drum corps pound out a driving rhythm. A large game clock atop the imaginary stadium ticks toward the opening kickoff. Five minutes. Four. Three. Two. One …
All of these events are called for in Hinderaker’s script, vividly brought to life by Playhouse director Jon Tracy, his creative team of designers and a multi-talented 11-member acting ensemble. Of course, we’re not talking slice-of-life realism. Events and situations are merely suggested, then left to the spectator’s imagination for completion. Some familiar elements are missing. There are no pom-pom girls, marching bands, goal posts, stadium announcers or whistle-blowing referees. Only one actual on-field “play” occurs, and although the game clock divides the action into four 15-minute quarters to further the illusion of reality, Colossal’s 65-minute, no-intermission length is only about half of what a normal game (with its many delays) requires.
In fact, the nods to realism are simply tools used by Hinderaker to demonstrate that it’s not impossible to put football on stage. Early on, however, it becomes apparent that this is only a framework for exploring a number of more important issues. Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck), the team’s star running back, opened a deep rift with his father, Damon (Robert Parsons), when he chose athletics over joining the latter’s respected dance company at a time when Damon’s own talent was fading. Then, in the play’s single live-action sequence that comes just as a lucrative professional contract seems certain, he mistakenly uses a head butt to block an opposing player, causing a spinal injury that puts him in a wheelchair, possibly for life. Eventually, we learn that his carelessness was due to a sudden impulse to protect Marcus (Cameron Matthews), a running back with whom he was having a turbulent clandestine relationship. The injury has left him so depressed that he is unwilling to cooperate with those like his empathetic physical therapist Jerry (Wiley Naman Strasser) who try to help him recover.
Flashbacks generated by imagined conversations between Mike after the accident (Jason Stojanovski) and his pre-accident alter ego (Gorrebeeck) offer narrative continuity. As significant as each of Hinderaker’s issues is, however, taken together they are a bit of an overkill for 65 minutes. The primary feature that makes Colossal exceptional is the way in which the aesthetics of modern dance and college football are shown to be closer than we might have thought. The sight of these macho, violence-prone players shedding their bulky armor during the halftime pause to engage in a dazzling display of movement for its own sake (choreography by Keith Pinto) captures the essence of our human paradox.
Finally, we shouldn’t overlook drummers Alex Hersler, Zach Smith and Andrew Humann. Their pulsing beat throughout the show provides one of the most memorable sound wraps that I’ve ever encountered in the theater.
NOW PLAYING: Colossal runs through April 30 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.