Sandbox Theatre's Queens seeks freedom in the ring

Emily Madigan and Neal Hazard

Emily Madigan and Neal Hazard

Sandbox Theatre's Queens is the story of a fighter: a scrappy boxer who takes punches for money because, for reasons both financial and psychological, he has to. The show has many of the tropes of the boxing genre — the feisty trainer, the worried girlfriend, the Last Big Fight, even the signature anthem — but Queens is no ordinary palooka story.

Park Square Theatre
$40-$60; ringside seats $25

For one thing, there's the setting. Raymond Queens is a black man in America, sometime between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Having witnessed the aftermath of a horrific incident of racially motivated violence, Raymond's trainer Al describes an ongoing struggle for African Americans to keep ownership of their own bodies; the relationships among body, spirit, and society are at the core of Queens.

Queens is also distinguished by the form it takes. It's a collaboratively created play, unfolding in a poetic, dreamlike series of episodes. The show's three actors — Theo Langason (who co-directed, with Matthew Glover), Neal Hazard, and Emily Madigan — each play multiple roles as scenes tumble into one another on a square boxing ring that's often lit in a golden hue.

The eponymous role is split: In the first act, the young fighter is played by Langason, and Hazard assumes the role for Raymond's later years in the second act. There's a wide gulf between the two Raymonds, one young and hopeful, the other middle-aged and world-weary, and the production never quite closes the gap between them. Ultimately, though, this is a show that's about moments more than it's about lifetimes, and it's in those moments that its heart insistently beats.

With the invaluable contribution of deVon Gray playing his original score live on keyboard, the actors perform carefully choreographed scenes that feel more like dance duets than like traditional drama. Relationships between men recede into the background, with Madigan's confident characterizations of the women in Raymond's life — his mother, his childhood girlfriend, a prostitute who becomes his soulmate — moving to the center.

A conventionally scripted play might have tightened the story's structure. If you're willing to set aside your expectations of a conventional narrative, though, you'll find a show built on trust — trust among the performers, trust in the material, and trust in the audience.

Much of what happens in Queens involves the actors quietly occupying these characters; we watch them as they try to figure out what to make of each other, and of themselves. In today's world, where the cacophonous struggles of ultimate fighting are ascendant, Queens suggests that the comparatively elegant business of boxing was a place where men once sought clarity and justice that was nowhere to be found outside the ring. 


Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
Through June 4; 651-291-7005