Fighting Naked With Broadswords
How J. David Brimmer stages comic fights in “Medieval Play”
“Kenny has a lot of laughs in there, but we really want it to look like they’re going at it hammer and tong.”
Fight choreographer J. David Brimmer is describing the action in Medieval Play, the new play by Kenneth “Kenny” Lonergan, which is now in previews at Signature Theatre. And while the scabrous, irreverent comedy may not have any hammers or tongs, there are enough daggers and broadswords to make up for it.
Medieval Play, which features bands of mercenaries slaughtering and pillaging their way through the Hundred Years War and the Papal Schism of 1378, offers plenty of opportunities for Brimmer to do what he does best: stage people killing one another.
He says that within the world of fight choreography, “my little niche is that I’m known as the visceral, realistic guy,” and he’s had a hand in such contemporary gorefests as Bug, Killer Joe, and the memorable Lieutenant of Inishmore. (“We went through five gallons a performance,” he says of the Martin McDonagh play, and it’s telling that he doesn’t feel the need to specify the liquid in question.)
Medieval Play, with its Spamalot-meets-Candide brand of larky nihilism, isn’t nearly as graphic as these other works. But the frequent swordplay gives Brimmer plenty of chances to mold his violence to Lonergan’s off-kilter worldview.
“The choreography [of each fight] is about 10 percent of what you’re doing out there,” he says. “Matching the tone of the piece is the important thing, and here I have the luxury of having the writer in the room.” The writer is also the director in this case, and Brimmer says Lonergan has given him close to 20 hours of rehearsal time with the cast, a fairly generous allotment.
Much of the swordplay deviates from the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks template, instead incorporating small vaudeville flourishes and bits of lazzi, the improvised catchphrases and physical bits commonly found in commedia dell’arte. For instance, one sword fight is regularly interrupted because the combatants can’t see one another through the narrow eye slits in their armor. “That’s fairly authentic,” Brimmer says. “The smaller your eye slit was, the less likely you were to be stabbed in the face. But it meant you couldn’t see as well.”
What isn’t authentic is the satisfying pinging sound that each broadsword makes: “Stage swords are made to sound like tuning forks so that they ring when they collide, which is what audiences expect,” Brimmer explains. And while medieval knights would practice with heavier wooden simulacra and also go stretches of time without needing to draw their weapons, the Medieval Play swords get a workout eight times a week—plus rehearsals.
As with each of Brimmer’s assignments—he has three plays coming in the next four months, including Chimichangas and Zoloft at the Atlantic Theatre—he waits until he gauges the proficiency of his cast before coming up with fight sequences. “You have to play to your actors’ strengths,” he says. “You can’t just come in and say, ‘Here’s the choreography.’”
One Medieval Play performer who has caught Brimmer’s eye is Halley Feiffer, who drew a particularly tough assignment: doing postcoital battle with the play’s nominal hero, the conflicted Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton). “She’s fighting with a two-handed broadsword basically in the nude,” Brimmer says.”That’s even better than Ginger Rogers dancing backward and in heels.”
Eric Grode is the author of “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).
Photo by Joan Marcus