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Split Decision 

Savage Tree spars with Requiem's clichs

Rod Serling's play Requiem for a Heavyweight and Atlanta's Savage Tree Arts Project prove to be mismatched sparring partners. When the new, multidisciplinary art and performance group gets in the ring with the dusty boxing drama, it's like watching a raw, young bruiser go a few rounds with an experienced but over-the-hill prizefighter. The result: a split decision.

Stretch out Marlon Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech from On the Waterfront to two hours and you'd have a close approximation of Requiem for a Heavyweight. Savage Tree takes pungent pleasure in the play's lugs, thugs and lowlifes.

In the play's first moments, Harlan "Mountain" McClintock (Winslow Thomas) throws wordless punches in a tight spotlight, like a pugilist's answer to a Shakespearean monologue. The fighter falls and spends much of the next scene out cold in a locker room, posed like a religious martyr in boxing trunks. The imagery is no accident: Serling never lets you forget Requiem's ambitions to be a morality play. A ringside doctor (John McLean) describes rope burns and other boxing-related injuries in compelling detail, then K.O.'s Mountain's career, lest a future blow leave him half-blind. Mountain's loyal, grizzled trainer, Army (Bill Griffith), and his shifty, conniving manager, Maish (Bryan Davis), argue over the most ethical way to treat a washed-up veteran of 111 bouts.

Director Kyle Crew and his actors clearly love sinking their teeth into the play's earthy dialogue and scuzzy roles. Maish never lights his ever-present cigar, but the words might as well be permeated with nicotine smoke: "I seen him hit you, and you go down like someone took your knees." Requiem marks a midpoint between socially conscious, crusading playwrights like Clifford Odets and the profane, anti-capitalist bomb-throwers like David Mamet.

Davis gives Maish plenty of hard-boiled, street-smart machismo - when he smiles, the corners of his mouth seem to go down, not up. But we learn virtually all we need to know about Maish within 10 minutes. Shades of gray never break the play's black and white dichotomy.

With misplaced guilt and loyalty to Maish, Mountain desperately seeks a career after boxing, and he meets a sensitive social worker unsubtly named Grace (Sarah Onsager). A heart of gold inevitably lies beneath Grace's prim outfit, but at least Onsager's unsentimental portrayal elevates the clichéd role.

Thomas convincingly plays Mountain as kind of a wide-eyed man-child, consistent to the role as written. Serling's sympathy for the sport's abused fighters nearly becomes condescension: All the play's boxers come across as misused boys, although Donnie Weeks finds welcome laughs as a dull-witted, downcast galoot. Requiem's self-importance at times feels naive. Maish considers cashing in on Mountain through a vulgar, braying wrestling promoter (Doug Curlin). You mean wrestling is - gasp - fake?

Requiem began as a 1957 teleplay for the live series "Playhouse 90" (and incidentally, a 1962 movie version featured Muhammad Ali playing himself). Instead of the immediacy of live television, Savage Tree goes for the intimacy of close quarters. With the audience in the round in the small, squared-off space, the performing arena looks exactly the size of a boxing ring. Between scenes, chirpy pop hits like "Buttons & Bows" are played, but the peppy music seems to mock the play's earnestness.

Requiem makes up only part of Savage Tree's spring festival, structured around the theme "Dignity vs. Despair." The group also presents Off the Ropes, an evening of original "rants" of music, dance and theater, as well as The Kankle King Show, a spoof of 1950s television comedy. Requiem for a Heavyweight qualifies as the main event, and it isn't a completely rigged match. The play's trajectory may be predictable, but a few characters make last-minute choices that go against expectations. Yet Requiem's knockout blow never lands.

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