Over the past decade, Sossy Mechanics, the husband-and-wife team of Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan, has presented its hit Trick Boxing at fringe festivals across the country, starting out at our own Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2002.
It's not the simplest recipe for success. While the show originally started as a way to link several short dances together for a performance, it has grown into a creation all its own. The latest iteration arrives onstage at the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater in an expanded form that, despite some scaling issues, works as a charming tale of a boxer who fights mainly by not fighting, and a woman who befriends him and shows him the dance moves he needs to survive during his three-week run in the ring.
Sostek plays Dancing Danny David, an immigrant trying to make a name for himself in a big city. He also plays all the other characters, from the conniving trainer to the various boxers to, most importantly, the brother of Bella, the dancer.
Originally, McClellan wanted as few lines as possible. Over the years, her role has grown, giving extra depth to the bond that grows between Danny and Bella. It's a relationship that simmers slowly through the first two-thirds of the piece, as the nervous immigrant tries to puzzle out the two halves of his life.
No matter the complications in the plot, the real attraction in Trick Boxing is the dynamic dances between McClellan and Sostek. Taking cues from swing and similar styles, the dances play out as a series of dynamic scenes, whether they are training exercises or getting-to-know-each-other trips on the dance floor.
The physical differences between the two — McClellan's tall frame, Sostek's shorter, more compact figure — give the dances an unusual edge. McClellan's character is usually more in control than Sostek's wannabe boxer, giving her a chance to lead her partner around the stage.
Beyond that, there are clever touches throughout, from a playful opening involving three-card Monte and boxes of apples to the presentation of the boxing itself. In each of the three fights, Sostek essentially fights himself, though not in a Graham-Chapman-on-Monty-Python kind of way. Instead, a tiny boxing ring is set up onstage, and Sostek gives us play-by-play while manipulating puppets to represent our hero and the boxers who stand in the way of his greatness. Fun, delightful stuff.
I wish I felt that way about the whole production, because there is a lot to love here. There were also long stretches when I wondered if we could get out of the way of the plot and back into the pleasant goofiness and engaging movement that mark the best parts of the show.
Though the two are co-creators, Sostek is largely responsible for the script, and there have been significant revisions for this production. The piece has gone from the under-an-hour Fringe time frame to a full-length play, though still presented in one act. In a case where longer isn't necessarily better, it feels as if some of the wonder of the shorter piece has been lost as the plot takes on more complications. There are stretches, especially in the play's first half, when we go a long time between the charming set pieces that are a mark of the piece.
The general pacing of the show seems too languid at times. Sostek and McClellan direct themselves here, and they spend too many moments on incidental characters or in long setups that don't pay off or that take their sweet time getting to the payoff.
Whatever the reason, Trick Boxing trudges along at the beginning when it should already be singing. That doesn't make this a poor experience in any way. The dancing, movement, and puppetry are delightful, as is the central relationship between Danny and Bella, which comes to life in the hands of these performers. It's clear what has made this play a success for the last decade. I just hope the special spark doesn't get lost amid the revisions.