Stage becomes arena as a battered woman battles her demons in the boxing ring

By Christina Campodonico

“The Wholehearted” recreates the intensity of a boxing ring with multimedia stage elements Photo by Kate Freer

“The Wholehearted” recreates the intensity of a boxing ring with multimedia stage elements
Photo by Kate Freer

You could say “The Wholehearted,” a new play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, leads with one foot forward.

A one-woman show about a fierce female boxer named Dee Crosby, the story catches Crosby at a crossroads: she’s broken and bruised from an attack by her abusive husband/trainer, but seeking to make a comeback in the ring and in her love life.

Like Muhammed Ali’s sage mantra “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” “The Wholehearted” approaches the art of boxing with an eye toward the sport’s intense physicality.

“We started the research on our feet,” says Suli Holum, who plays Crosby, co-directs with collaborator Deborah Stein, and is co-artistic director of their joint theater venture Stein|Holum Projects.

“The way we develop work in our company is through a series of workshops and investigations—laboratories. We’re up on our feet making stuff before anything is written down,” explains Holum. “So Deborah and I are in a basement rehearsal studio in Brooklyn — we got a manual from Amazon, a learn how to box manual — and Deborah’s calling stuff out. … One of the things we had to explore: What is boxing? What’s the physicality? … What would it change if women embraced their natural aggression?”

To answer these questions, Holum, who has a background in dance, started training with a boxing coach in Philadelphia, while Stein looked to Holum’s movements during workshops for sparks of inspiration.

“Suli in her improvising had all these amazing ideas about how to work with the physicality of boxing as a style of choreo-graphy, as a way of interacting and being on stage. She made some really beautiful suggestions about that,” said Stein, who wrote the script.

The one problem: Holum wasn’t saying a word.

“She was not improvising any text. What am I going to do?” recalls Stein. “I never made a project with Suli, where I wrote the script from whole cloth.”

So Stein went away and wrote a 40-plus page, stream of consciousness monologue about “this woman who was in this tempestuous relationship with her trainer, trying to get back in the ring and secretly in love with this girl.”

The end result sounds like a mixture of clashes and counterpoints, contradictions and friction —opposites attracting. The action of the play rubs up against an audience seated on stage and in the round, yet it’s also projected on Jumbotrons with live video feed, a nod to the “large-scale, heart-thumping arena feeling of a boxing match,” says Holum, but also to the intimate acoustic sets of folksingers like the Indigo Girls.

The rockabilly score to which Holum sings is also an inversion of the traditional western murder ballad, she explains. Often recounting how a man kills a woman for falling out of love with him, Holum says Crosby’s songs and soliloquies come from a more unconventional and nuanced place.

“There is a very entrenched narrative about the abused woman in our culture. What we were hoping to do was to take that narrative and mess with it,” she says. “We are consciously blurring the line between victim and aggressor.”

They also attacked traditional notions of how women are supposed to act toward others and carry themselves, adds Stein.

“We were really entranced by the image of women boxing, doing something that women aren’t supposed to do — like punching the guts out of someone,” says Stein.

“The Wholehearted,” is a radical departure from their previous play, “‘Chimera,’ about a clinical microbiologist who discovers the DNA of a hidden twin residing within her body.

“Chimera” is extremely clean. And the design of the play, it’s an all-white set, all-white costumes. It’s very sterile,” says Stein. “We wanted to do something that was not clean. We wanted to do something that is really messy, very visceral — blood and guts — that had big messy emotions.”

One thread that carries through into “The Wholehearted,” however, is Stein and Holum’s mission to make theater that confronts their audiences with complexities to untangle, rather than simplicities to understand.

“I’m so honored that people come in the first place. And then I’m really honored when people are compelled to stay and talk, because we consciously try to make pieces that end with questions not with answers,”
says Holum.

“I think we share a restlessness and curiosity about the world,” adds Stein.  “And we use theater-making to wrestle with big questions.”

“The Wholehearted” continues at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. $45. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit centre-theatregroup.org.