Blows both physical and psychic are a running theme in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s new production The Royale and they are punctuated throughout by a stream of claps and stomps from the cast. It’s an unexpected touch, and it works brilliantly.

I wasn’t sure if a play about boxing would be for me, but I got hooked as I watched the play’s percussive rhythm begin to take shape in an early rehearsal. The physical soundtrack plays into the inner landscape of lead character Jay, an African American boxer. It’s in his blood, as he joyfully practices to a jazz beat and struggles with the traumatic memory behind a door he pounded on long ago.

megpix-091217-1043 - Low Res
Toran White, Mark Soucy, and Thomas Silcott. Photo by Meghan Moore.

The boxing matches are a particularly innovative piece of staging. Rather than pantomiming punches, the actors face the audience. The lighting shifts, turning the ring into a sort of dream space. We watch them as they jab and weave, and are made partners in both their triumph and their pain. And we feel every blow.

But when the play’s final, surprising, and heartbreaking blow lands, it’s quiet. This makes it all the more shocking. I think I gasped. Knockout.

-Amy Roeder, Cohort