The sweat, the combativeness and even the body blows feel mighty real, but the fight itself is pure fantasy in "Tyson vs. Ali," a sleek mixed-media meditation on a boxing bout that never was, and never could have been. Currently bobbing and weaving around a simulated ring at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in Lower Manhattan, the production is conceived and directed by Reid Farrington, who deftly splices together video footage and live performance to offer a prismatic take on a theoretical matchup of Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, two of the great names in boxing history.
Presented as part of the Coil festival, the show stars four committed actors - Dennis A. Allen II, Roger Casey, Femi Olagoke and Jonathan Swain - who take turns portraying the title characters, as well as some of their fiercest opponents. Thanks to their collectively and individually charismatic presence, and Farrington's seamless integration of movement and video, "Tyson vs. Ali" is always watchable, even when it's sometimes opaque (unless you happen to know a lot about the history of boxing).
For all its physical exuberance - the actors often appear to pummel one another with an intensity that you half expect to draw blood - Farrington's approach to the material is primarily cerebral, inspired by his fascination with the psychology of boxing and boxers.
Divided into thematic "rounds" ("Beauty and Brutality," "Endurance/Strategy"), the text employs speeches from interviews and news conferences Ali and Tyson gave, but there's little in the way of standard information conveyed about the victories, setbacks and scandals of their careers. Farrington is more interested in the men's psyches - at times surprisingly similar, despite their very different boxing styles - rather than in their historical achievements and the arcs of their lives.
The four performers try only vaguely to impersonate either Ali or Tyson. Casey bears a nominal resemblance to Ali, and nails his blustery braggadocio. When they are portraying Tyson, the actors sometimes mimic his oddly endearing, whispery lisp.
But if you spend too much time trying to figure out who's who at any given moment, you're likely to miss the larger point of the show, which is to excavate the drives, fears and obsessions that race around the heads of boxers before, during and after they meet in the ring.
There are, of course, differences in how each of these two celebrated fighters met the challenges of a brutal game that often involves almost as much psychological warfare as it does physical interaction.
"I want him to be the hero," Ali says, speaking of his opponent. "I want everybody to cheer him, and I want them all to boo me ... I always love to be the underdog, the bad man. He's the good American boy, and I'm the bad boy."
Ali used that kind of me-against-the-world attitudinizing to pump himself up, but also to disarm opponents, who would then be taken by surprise when the underdog started to bite with unerring aim.
We hear Tyson evincing a more conflictedÂ and complex version of the prefight mindset: "When I come out, I have supreme confidence," he says, but then follows this Ali-like statement with a seeming contradiction: "I'm totally afraid. I'm afraid of everything. I'm afraid of losing. I'm afraid of being humiliated."
The show follows through on the suggestion of the title by having the actors portraying Ali and Tyson throw fistfuls of punches at one another in the ring. Here, their differing styles are vividly contrasted, with Ali's elegant floating-butterfly and stinging-bee approach firmly at odds with Tyson's more aggressive style. Video from their careers is projected on a series of small screens - they look like miniature trampolines - that Dave Shelley, who portrays the referees and coaches, flings around the ring with impressive dexterity and exactness, so that, at times, we can see the actors imitating the footwork and choreography of a fabled match.
Farrington worked for many years with the Wooster Group, whose pioneering work in melding video, sound and live performance set the template for this kind of show. He brings an often spellbinding exactitude to his melding of video and performance. (Farrington's prior productions include "Gin and 'It,'" a live simulation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Rope," and a cinema-stage mashup of "A Christmas Carol.") Some of the more notable - or scandalous - passages in the fighters' careers are seen in archival footage, as when we watch Tyson infamously chomping on Evander Holyfield's ear, or an episode of "This Is Your Life" devoted to Ali.
Yet, as is often the case with shows including generous amounts of video, the onslaught of sound, image and physicality can sometimes leave you wondering where to look. But Farrington's compassionate fascination with the brutal difficulties of forging a successful career in the sport comes through.
Tellingly, this fictional fight doesn't make it to a ninth round. In a late segment, the grim toll of the boxing life is highlighted. His career long over, Ali is heard denying that he's suffered any neurological damage. ("Do I sound like I have brain damage to you?")
Tyson speaks with sadness of the end of his career. "I just don't have this in my heart anymore," he says, and then struggles to express how he has lost the ferocious desire to win - to hurt - that drove him on. "I'm not an animal anymore," he says, sounding bewildered, and oddly forlorn.
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