Nicklas Aliff and Audrey Bertaux prepare to engage in fisticuffs.
Nicklas Aliff and Audrey Bertaux prepare to engage in fisticuffs. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Nicklas Aliff is a big, burly guy. And it sure looks like he’s beating up a girl.

Her name is Audrey Bertaux. She looks to be somewhere in her twenties, wiry and athletic and far from defenseless. But she has only a fraction of Aliff’s bulk. He sweeps Bertaux off her feet and raises her as though he’s going to body slam her.

He’s got her to about the height of his chest when he takes a wary glance up at the dangerously close ceiling, low enough for him to touch. His commitment to grievous bodily harm suddenly flagging, he looks over at fight choreographer Cliff Williams, an even bigger guy (equally goateed) who’s been observing from a corner of the compact room. I know, says Williams’ expression. Aliff gently deposits Bertaux on the matted floor.

Overhead clearance won’t be a problem once The Girl in the Red Corner, a new play by Stephen Spotswood, moves into the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, where it has its first preview on Nov. 3. (It opens formally Saturday, Nov. 5) But in the basement of Capital MMA in Takoma Park on a rainy October afternoon, compromises must be made; even in a production that’s been uncompromising in its efforts to make its hand-to-hand encounters look real.

Well, not real. They have to tell a story, too. Stage combat shouldn’t strive for mere plausibility any more than dialogue should aspire to the repetition and aimlessness of ordinary speech. It’s just supposed to be realistic enough to camouflage the playwright’s narrative or thematic agenda. 

“Sometimes there’s a cool move that’s fun to do but which doesn’t serve the story,” director Amber Paige McGinnis says. “We’ve tried to be very disciplined,” culling the fights down to moves that express each character’s emotional state, blow by blow. Williams estimates the climactic fight they’re working on now has between 50 and 75 of them.

While other shows have featured a high fisticuffs quotient, The Girl in the Red Corner is the first D.C. play to make fight-sports its subject—or at least its milieu—since Studio Theatre’s production of Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch almost five years ago. It’s arguably the most ambitious offering yet from the Welders, a rotating collective of D.C. playmakers founded in 2013. Red Corner is the first show from the Welders’ second generation, a group of eight theater artists who will produce seven plays before choosing the next class of theatermakers to succeed them in just over three years’ time. It’s about Halo, a youngish woman reeling from a divorce and succession of shitty jobs who finds solace in The Octagon—the 25-or-30-foot-diameter (dimensions vary) cage of Mixed Martial Arts competitions. 

In a sort of literal expression of the central metaphor that makes fight-stories like Rocky resonate far beyond the audience for blood sports, every scene in Red Corner is staged inside The Octagon. Even the ones that take place in an office or around a kitchen table.

Deb Sivigny, a prolific designer of sets and costumes who is also one of the eight current Welders, created the cage. Williams created the fights, with a big assist from Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor Jay Ferrari, the show’s MMA consultant. 

Ferrari gave the five actors—all of whom are well-conditioned fitness enthusiasts and/or professionals, but with little-to-no martial arts background—a crash course in striking and grappling, but his main task has been working with Williams and McGinnis to design a series of distinct fights that serve the dramatic imperatives of Spotswood’s script. Fights the actors can execute safely over 15 performances. 

“Our fight call is going to take an hour,” laughs Jennifer Hopkins, who plays Brinn, Halo’s older sister who’s working through marital difficulties of her own. (Fight call is the practice during which any simulated violence in a play is re-rehearsed shortly before the curtain of each performance, to reduce the chance of an on-stage injury.) This is the fourth week of Red Corner rehearsals; opening night is two weeks away. That means the prep period for this show hasn’t been substantially longer than that of a conventional play. 

There was nothing physical in Red Corner’s audition process, the actors say. Still, Spotswood and McGinnis had good reason to believe the actors they’d hired could handle the load: Hopkins works as an instructor at several D.C.-area health clubs, as does Maggie Donnelly, who plays Gina, Halo’s trainer.

Williams says the level of conditioning the cast came in with has been invaluable, but that performing fights on stage is less about raw athleticism and more about attention to detail and the ability to control one’s strength. 

Among the actors, Bertaux has the heaviest burden: As Halo, she’s in every scene—every fight. There’s an intermission, but she never leaves the stage during either of the two acts. 

“I’ve always been a workout geek but I knew I’d have to ramp it up,” Bertaux says. She added to a fitness regimen usually dominated by yoga with rope-skipping and other high-intensity interval drills, determined to build her stamina. Were the play a more conventional drama, only the two actors playing fighters, Bertaux and Donnelly, would be spending their afternoon in this basement gym. But Red Corner imagines Halo’s emotional and verbal clashes with her family and coworkers as physical altercations, too. Conflict is the essence of drama, Aristotle said. (Not Aristotle “Warlord” Estino, 0-1, 135 lbs. The other one.)

That means all five cast members—even Hopkins, Hodsoll, and Aliff, as Halo’s sister, mother, and brother-in-law, respectively, who react to her new occupation with variable levels of bewilderment and disapproval—get to sweat. “I’ve never spent so much time on the physical aspect” of a performance, says Lisa Hodsoll, who plays Halo’s mother. And this is an actor who played Medea in a solo show.

“We try to be very clear with the actors,” McGinnis says. “Now we are training in MMA technique. Okay. Now we’re doing theater choreography, and this is the way we have translated the MMA training into something that’s safe and that we can repeat.”

None of this was supposed to be necessary. Spotswood had another play ready for the Welders to develop and produce. The Gantry Girls Come Home is about “six sisters sitting deathwatch for their mom,” he says. One of them was an MMA fighter. Spotswood “fell down a deep, deep YouTube rabbit hole” of MMA matches and clips as he researched what he thought would only be a detail of one character’s backstory. He also caught up with a friend from college who had begun training as a fighter. “I saw the intense and positive spark” her new occupation brought to her life, Spotswood says.

His growing curiosity about mixed martial arts crystallized when he saw the Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree play the Rock & Roll Hotel in Sept. 2015. The statuesque singer/rapper Dessa was performing, and her stage presence gave Spotswood a mental picture of a woman in a fighting stance, sweat-soaked but defiant. By the time he’d completed the short walk home from the concert, he’d decided to write a play about the fighter he’d imagined, whomever she was. All he knew for sure was that every scene would be set in the ring. He knew he could send The Gantry Girls around to theaters and trust them to figure out how to stage it. But for this new thing, he knew he’d want to work closely with a director and designers he knows—a privilege that being the Lead Producing Playwright of his Welders class affords him. 

“I started thinking, ‘The Welders are supposed to be an opportunity to take risks and to go bigger,’” Spotswood says. “Well, this would be bigger. This would be real hard.”

McGinnis, who’d had a happy creative partnership with Spotswood on Pinky Swear Productions’ 2015 Capital Fringe show The Last Burlesque, had already agreed to direct Gantry Girls. But the clarity of Spotswood’s vision for Red Corner persuaded her to stay on, even before that clarity manifested itself in a completed script.

“Marrying physicality to storytelling is something that interests me,” says McGinnis. “I was a dancer before I was anything else.” She earns her living primarily as a filmmaker with the production company WILL Interactive, but has directed for almost all of D.C.’s most prominent mid-level theaters; Constellation Theatre Company’s stunning production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus last winter was hers.

Many of Red Corner’s principals hail from some point on the actor-athlete spectrum. Williams was a bouncer and actor before before he got into fight choreography. Theaters also bring him in to choreograph sex scenes, as well as moments of physical comedy.

Donnelly is a compact and intense lady who moved to D.C. from New York two-and-a-half years ago “to hit the reset button.” She’d been doing musical theater and singing at weddings most weekends; eventually the strain wore away her voice. Unable to sing, she felt depressed and aimless. Arriving in D.C., she found the theater community more close-knit than in New York, a discovery that’s been restorative. She also started taking boxing conditioning classes when she got here.

“It’s really funny that I’m in a play about somebody who feels like she’s out of options and she goes to fighting,” she says. “I know intimately what that’s like.” 

Gina, her character, relies on the discipline and routine of fight training to maintain her sobriety. Coincidentally, Donnelly ended up in a “Bodyshred” class taught by Hopkins soon after her arrival, though the two did not introduce themselves to one another until being cast in a show together. Donnelly now teaches 15 to 20 fitness classes per week, mostly barre but also lots of “multiplanar high-intensity conditioning.”

Rehearsal is back on. Bertaux and Donnelly are practicing a grappling scene wherein Gina tries to hold Halo in a “Mount” position, straddling her stomach, but Halo manages to escape. They’ve been through it several times, and Bertaux complains that her shoulder is beginning to hurt while the choreography seems to be getting less precise. Williams asks the assistant stage manager who has been filming the fight with her phone to give the actors a playback. 

He suggests an adjustment, and the women try it again. This time, a tangle of Bertaux’s hair gets briefly trapped under Donnelly’s knee.

“Maybe I should just shave it,” Bertaux says.

“Then I wouldn’t have anything to braid,” coos Donnelly.

Then she crawls back on top of Bertaux, pinning her beneath her legs. No mercy.

Nov. 3-20 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 15-$30. (202) 399-7993.