Pedro Quinn stumbles back into the boxing ring in Oliver Mayer's sequel to "Blade to the Heat." Oliver Mayer's new play, "Members Only," returns to the story of a closeted boxer about twenty years after his tragic victory against an opponent that challenged his sexuality. Only this time, the play is set in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, rather than the '50s.
Pedro Quinn (Ray Oriel) won against Mantequilla Decima in a fight to the death, and his story continues with the rise of a new aspiring fighter, Lone (Gabriela Ortega). Ray Oriel reprises his role from the original production of "Blade to the Heat." Like his character, he returns with rusty skills but an ambitious spirit. Quinn is still just as closeted as before, and the guilt of Decima's death makes it even harder for him to be open with his sexuality.
Quinn finds out that he will re-enter the ring to fight an old opponent. A required visit to the doctor for his return to fighting foreshadows his fragile health and illuminates a love story, a part of his life he tries to hide. When he makes it to the ring, he loses his sight when he pushes himself too far.
Lone's subplot as an upcoming female boxer and mentee of Quinn has a beautiful throughline, and the intersection with Quinn's life highlights the differences between the past and present. Ortega, a USC BFA in Acting alumna, gives her character depth by exploring the anxiety and excitement of working under Quinn's guidance. Her emotional walls fall while working with Quinn. She gains strength in her voice and her movement, allowing Lone to embrace her strength as a female fighter. But we still see her scared side when interacting with Kid (Ronnie Alvarez). The relationship she creates with Kid is playful and brings us to a new world outside of fighting.
Under the direction of The Latino Theater Company's Artistic Director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, the play struggles to make its way out of the script. The disconnection of the actors results in an off-putting and confusing story that should've humanized a community of fighters and their loved ones.
At the beginning of the play, actors speak during a transition between scenes explaining "GRID" or "gay-related immune deficiency." This was one of the first terms used to describe HIV and AIDS in the early '80s and is the only mention of the disease in the entire play. After that point, the audience is left in suspense, waiting for it to take physical form in one of the characters. When it does, the result is painstakingly authentic. Cox (Darrin Dewitt Henson) stumbles across the stage, staggering for breath. He is nearing the end with final symptoms of the disease taking shape.
Quinn's connection to his doctor is promising, but awkward from a theatrical standpoint. Like much of the direction, their relationship is washed over by the daring direction that plays with narrative more than character relationship. Actors face the audience far too long with little opportunity to explore with the other actors around them. When they do turn into the stage, they bounce energy off each other and the scene comes alive.
Yee Eun Nam's projection design heightens the production by multiplying what the audience sees. A camera is placed in front of the stage and projects the actors on the back wall and the hanging screen. This added layer differentiates what is being played on television and what is happening in the reality of the story. In collaboration with Francois-Pierre Couture's set design, the stage becomes a literal boxing ring. The curtains placed in the back of the stage is best used for projections and becomes an entrance and exit throughout the first part. The monochromatic nature of the setting dulls the excitement of lights and projections. Despite this awkward set piece, the audience gets the overall experience of sitting in front of the ring.
Mayer explains that the time limit influenced the run of the show. The production had three weeks for the show to be production ready. Mayer explained that, over the course of the run, the actors explored their choices more and texturized the production to a more cohesive piece. Mayer suggests progress has been made since the time I saw it in the first week of its run.
"We hit all the marks, but if we'd have had more time we could've deepened the experience of hitting those marks," he said. "I think that anyone seeing it in the last couple of weeks is going to see a play that is coalesced."
"Members Only" shows the realities of living during the AIDS epidemic instead of just talking about it. Through the lens of boxing and focusing on Pedro Quinn, the audience understands the anxiety of living under a microscope as well as the ambition to keep going when disconnection and fear are overwhelming.
"Members Only" runs now through November 18th at The Los Angeles Theatre Center. Tickets start at $24, though prices are subject to change, and can be purchased here.