In a fight between Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali in their prime, who would have won? Anyone expecting a firm answer to that question from Tyson vs. Ali, the multimedia performance piece that has just opened in downtown Manhattan, will be disappointed. Reid Farrington, who conceived and directed this highly inventive 60-minute evening, which is a co-production of PS122 and arts group 3-Legged Dog, isn’t interested in assembling a debate between boxing experts.
You will not discover a point-by-point analysis of each boxer’s strengths: Ali’s speed, Tyson’s power; Ali’s style, Tyson’s grit; Ali’s stamina, Tyson’s defence. Nor will you encounter much linear biographical material: Ali’s political stances in the 1960s; Tyson’s love of pigeons in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, Farrington and writer Frank Boudreaux evoke the feel of each fighter’s personality through footage of the men and through snippets of their statements spoken by the four actors who get under the boxers’ skin.
And skin is both literal and metaphorical here, as it is in all plays and movies about boxing. The four performers – Dennis A Allen II, Roger Casey, Femi Olagoke, Jonathan Swain – spent months training at Gleason’s gym in Brooklyn, where Tyson, who was born in that borough, and Ali, who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, at times worked out. The actors who spring into the ring that serves as Tyson vs. Ali’s playing area (the audience sit on two sides of it) are supreme physical specimens.
Video clips are projected on to screens that resemble mini trampolines, which are wielded with martial-arts precision by Dave Shelley, who portrays the referee. Many of the sequences unfold to a clock ticking down the three-minute rounds of a boxing match.
As the performers are given no back-and-forth book scenes to act, they must engage us through intense sparring and through short speeches that they deliver ringside. Swain, who has professional boxing experience, channels Ali: “I’m young. I’m handsome. I’m fast. I’m pretty. And can’t possibly be beat.” Casey gives us Tyson: “I don’t try to intimidate people at press conferences ... I intimidate people by hitting them.”
Farrington’s tech-heavy method – clever projections of edited boxing footage interact with other projections and the live performers – serves in this instance to distance theatregoers from the action. Since the method is so fragmentary, the audience, which is usually a kinetic, crucial part of a fight, is largely boxed out. Instead, we must content ourselves with the actors’ movement – a sequence in which all four guys punch in unison is terrific – and the skill with which the video is arrayed.