For the Love of (Or, the Roller Derby Play) Theatre Review
While there have been some roller derby movies, notably in the 1970s with Raquel Welch’s 1972 Kansas City Bomber and the 1975 sci fi pic Rollerball, and more recently with Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore and Juliette Lewis in 2009’s Whip It, this fast moving sport on wheels is a unique, daunting setting for a live stage show. Somehow director and choreographer Rhonda Kohl and her gifted cast manage to pull it off with some imaginative “roll playing”, bringing Gina Femia’s For the Love Of frenetically and fully alive on the Theatre of NOTE’s boards.
Subtitled (Or, The Roller Derby Play), Femia’s drama largely alternates between the character’s back stories (which can be uneven) and imaginatively staged action sequences, wherein the all-female multi-culti cast actually appears to be skating. But while the athletes are adorned by (impermanent) tattoos, glitter, (cosmetic) bruises and clad in eye-catching uniforms, none of the actors portraying the so-called Brooklyn Scallywags are actually gliding about strapped into roller-skates in what Femia has dubbed a “danc-ical.” (BTW, more squeamish audience members may prefer not sitting in this intimate theater’s front row, if they want to leave with all 10 toes fully intact.)
Love of has two lead characters, who are known by their derby monikers. (BTW, is “Gina Femia” the bard’s derby or real name?) Joy Ride (Cassandra Blair) is a newbie to this fast moving, often fierce contact sport and team of whirling dervishes. Stuck in a dead end job and relationship with Michelle (Elinor Gunn), competing alongside her sisters-in-arms (or feet?), Joy finds joie de vivre, flitting about the arena on her skates. Like the other Scallywags, Joy experiences a release wheeling about the rink that eludes her in daily life.
The Scallywags’ leader and star player is Lizzie Lightning (Tania Verafield - Note: In the interests of full disclosure I’ve been friendly with Tania for years and worked with her last October when she emceed the Hollywood Blacklist Commemoration I co-organized and wrote), a driven, winner-take-all speed demon with a blue glitter lightning bolt decorating her right eye. Lizzie has the characteristics and mannerisms of a stereotypical young Italian-American male, such as John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino in the 1970s Welcome Back, Kotter sitcom (“Up your nose with a rubber hose!”) and in his early movies. (Lizzie’s nom de track may be a reference, in part, to “Greased Lightning” from Grease?)
But what makes Verafield’s portrait so compellingly interesting is that these macho tropes are being played out inside of a female character by an actress. And when stage and celluloid stereotypes get a gender, ethnic and/or class twist, the trite can take on whole new meanings. For instance, imagine a revival of Gone with the Wind wherein Prissy and Mammy run Tara, and Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes are field hands working in the plantation’s cotton fields. See what I mean? A similar, sly dynamic that upends the conventional narrative is at work in Love Of. In any case, for my money Verafield steals the show with one of the best stage performances I’ve seen in years.
Unlike Joy’s belle Michelle, who has all but given up on being an artist in order to pay the bills, when she’s not rolling around the rink Lizzie is slinging ink as a tattoo artist. From the start, as Joy joins the team a sexual frisson develops between Joy and Lizzie, who has a smoldering sensuality. Will they or won’t they, in this girl-meets-girl drama?
I was rooting them on because I found Michelle to be a snore and Joy’s scenes with her to be tediously boring. Joy has a conflicted self, and Lizzie, who - despite her self-assured, demeanor - has a tender side beneath her tough persona. And the rough and tumble derby star may also be Lizzie the loser when it comes to the love department. (BTW, some of Femia’s dramatis personae are straight, others gay.)
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During the approximately two-hour play with one intermission audiences may ponder: What exactly is the attraction of roller derby for these female athletes? It’s certainly not the money, for this Brooklyn team is no New York Knicks or L.A. Lakers. It could be a chance to briefly escape from the anonymity and dullness of everyday life, an opportunity to get the adrenaline pumping, to standout and be recognized, to be - or at least feel like - a winner. Roller derby also gives the athletes an opportunity to, as the Rolling Stones rather scientifically put it, “get yer ya yas out.”
Perhaps the most important point here is that “sisterhood is powerful.” In addition to an all-woman cast, Love Of also has an all-female design team. This fits in well with Theatre of NOTE’s “Year of the Woman” theme, as the #metoo and #timesup movement gains momentum, along with an increasing number of woman candidates for office. To me, the freewheeling Brooklyn Scallywags are metaphors of feminism, for Grrrrrl power in the age of Trump. (I’d like to see him try to grab one of their pussies!)
By the way, the word Scallywag has a post-Civil War derivation and, interestingly, refers to a White Southerner who supported the Reconstruction era radical Republican Party (Thaddeus Stevens’, not Trump’s Republicans!) and its policy of Black emancipation. Scallywags were considered to be traitors by Southern racists. So, in that sense, the feminist Brooklyn Scallywags are aptly named.
In 2015 the creative Kohl directed the Actors Co-op’s thrilling production of Around the World in 80 Days, which was an LA Times’ Critic’s Choice. In my review I wrote, “Rhonda Kohl deserves kudos for keeping this globe and stage spinning, along with audience members’ heads” and called the play a “daffy, delirious tour de force.” This talented helmer accomplishes much the same with Love Of. Theatre of NOTE producer Kelly Lingen of the L.A. Derby Dolls was the play’s “roller derby liaison,” who helped enhanced the production’s realism - stylized as it is.
With great choreo and a breakout performance by the gifted Tania Verafield leading the pack, For the Love Of is one of the most imaginative, original plays I’ve ever seen in L.A. If you enjoy gripping, action packed drama, strap on a pair of skates and roll on down to the Theatre of NOTE (but watch your toes!). Keep on tracking!
Theatre of NOTE’s West Coast premiere of For the Love Of (Or, The Roller Derby Play) is being presented Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. through May 26. Theatre of Note is at 1517 N. Cahuenga (just north of Sunset), Hollywood, CA 90028). Reservations/Information: www.theatreofnote.com; (323)856-8611.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. The third edition of“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .