Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Berkeley Rep docudrama probes whether NFL can outlive head injuries

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Ensemble cast of “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” features (from left) Marilee Talkington, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, ex-49er Dwight Hicks, Bill Geisslinger and Jenny Mercein. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Dwight Hicks (left) is spotlighted in “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” as Marilee Talkington tapes up Eddie Ray. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Did the National Football League mutate into a life-threatening disease?

Is the sport too lethal to survive?

An ensemble cast tackles such questions head-on in “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story),” a world premiere play at the Berkeley Rep.

And not unlike 320-pound offensive linemen relentlessly pounding the weakest links of a defense, it repeatedly bellows that if the NFL doesn’t radically change, it will become extinct.

Soon.

If I hadn’t previously agreed with that conclusion, the docudrama wouldn’t have convinced me — because its Gatling gun approach, covering every angle while targeting the league, blunts its punch.

The play focuses on head trauma.

On CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain that can only be diagnosed post-mortem, actually.

But it also probes other life-altering injuries, ever-changing rules, fans’ mindset, financial inducements, segregation, class warfare.

All serious topics.

Director Tony Taccone makes sure, however, to inject humor that mitigates the heaviness.

Using clever slo-mo pantomime.

A bevy of one-liners.

And sight gags — with the funniest, in my eyes, being a foul-mouthed caricature of an Oakland Raiders-type fanatic cloaked in football gear (accented by a skull on his chest).

“X’s and O’s” was written by super-fan K.J. Sanchez with Jenny Mercein, one-sixth of the acting ensemble and daughter of NFL running back Chuck Mercein, best recalled for his Green Bay Packers’ stint in the 1967 “Ice Bowl” championship game when the wind-chill factor registered minus-48.

They based their piece on interviews.

With players and their kin, parents of young hopefuls, fans, physicians and academics.

While nurturing the commissioned play in The Ground Floor, the repertory theater’s arm that develops new work, the playwrights changed names to protect the innocent.

And, I’d suggest, the guilty.

The ironic title titillates me, considering that the play boldfaces the negative. But the “love story” is distinctly a torrid affair between fans and a league that generates $10 billion a year while maintaining its status as a nonprofit.

Dwight Hicks, 58-year-old ex-San Francisco 49er safety who earned two Super Bowl rings and played in four Pro Bowls, is the show’s box-office draw.

The athlete-actor faltered several times opening night as if struggling to remember dialogue. But he, like the others, portrayed multiple characters and otherwise acquitted himself well.

Acting wasn’t the show’s decisive factor, though.

The mood was.

The docudrama’s imaginative high-tech set helped. It featured a canopy and walls with, first, a diagram of a football play (with its traditional X’s and O’s), then myriad projections of the game’s history, violence and popularity.

Despite its core being prickly, the show sometimes felt tedious (though only 80 minutes long).

Aficionados knew the facts.

A program article by Madeleine Oldham, dramaturg and director of The Ground Floor, referenced the 1990s when ex-players “seemed to be exhibiting things like memory loss at relatively young ages, mood swings, or personality changes.”

Evidence “of a link between football and brain injury reached a tipping point” in 2005, she wrote, after an autopsy on 50-year-old Pittsburgh Steeler ‘Iron Mike’ Webster showed “the inside of his brain mirrored that of a much older man.”

Many NFL alumni, Oldham added, “were often dealing with headaches, depression, the inability to remember simple things, lack of focus, substance abuse, or thoughts of suicide.”

“X’s and O’s,” like football itself, doted on statistics.

My online search verified them: More than 5,000 player-plaintiffs quickly signed onto 250 concussion-related lawsuits against the league. Add 1,000 if you count spouses.

Numbers aren’t at risk, though.

Human beings are.

That, of course, is the point of the play, in which I found numerous memorable lines.

Such as, “I love watching someone suffer” and “How do you go from superman to man to nobody?”

Sportscasts have recently been riddled with endless speculation about “Deflategate” and which New England Patriots player or employee let air out of the championship game balls.

Somehow I believe questions raised by “X’s and O’s” are more imperative.

 “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” will run at the Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St. (off Shattuck), through March 1. Night performances, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Matinees, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $14.50-$79 (subject to change). Information: www.berkeleyrep.org or (510) 647-2949

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or check out his blog at www.vitalitypress.com

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