Photo by Hayley Young

ACT Theatre Gets Physical With ‘The Royale’

Director Ameenah Kaplan brings rhythm and movement to the stage for this story about Jack Johnson.

Ameenah Kaplan is a drummer, but she didn’t always tell people that. In the world of theater, it was something of a liability.

“There’s always been the actor-singer-dancer that’s been on Broadway,” says the Atlanta-based actor-turned-director while in Seattle for rehearsals, “but if you say to anybody that you are a drummer-singer-actor, they’ll go ‘Oh, really, you do all that, do you?’ They don’t believe you can do all those things well, which is funny because dancing, singing, and acting are all very distinct disciplines; it’s just that Broadway normalized them.”

Now, Kaplan is more forthcoming with all her talents, as the world of theater is opening its eyes to the offshoots of physical-theater productions like Cirque du Soleil; Stomp, in which she acted; and Blue Man Group, for which she was drum coach. She views the success of these large-scale populist theatrical productions that employ myriad talents (including drumming) as the wellspring from which a new crop of hybrid theater is emerging and, in a way, normalizing physical theater. Among the new works following in the footsteps of those big shows is The Royale, a current production of which Kaplan is directing at ACT.

The play, by Marco Ramirez (better known as the showrunner of Daredevil), tells a story inspired by famed boxer Jack Johnson, but does so in an unconventional manner, employing stylized fighting and having an explicit rhythm throughout, with dialogue delivered between punches. The Royale, which premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, Calif., in 2013 with Kaplan attached as movement director, is more than a continuation of its predecessors, she says. It is one of the works that is evolving the form, marrying the narrative and the purely physical. “It bridges the gap between spectacle and storytelling,” Kaplan says. “That is why it is the future of American theater.”

Because the play’s subject is boxing, Kaplan says, the movement is intrinsic to the story (just as dancing is intrinsic to A Chorus Line). That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Kaplan says that none of the actors she is working with on this production have ever incorporated movement into their onstage work.

“Some of them have learned about their musical prowess in the course of the rehearsals,” she says. “They thought they weren’t rhythmic, and they discovered that they are.”

ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676. $20–$35. Ends Oct. 8.

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