Circle pulls off a highly entertaining rugby scrum

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I'll admit when I first learned Circle Theatre was opening their season with a 20-some-year-old British play about a down-on-their-luck rugby team, I winced. But let me tell, this is a wonderful production. Up 'n' Under is truly a heartwarming good time. There are terrific performances and plenty of laughs. Whether, like me, you don't even know the rules of rugby, or whether you're a longtime lover of English working-class, underdog comedies like The Full Monty or Brassed Off, this show is a hilarious experience. It's inventively written, tightly directed by Rob Chambers, and the acting could not be stronger. The cast is superb.

Up 'n' Under is a 1984 drama by John Godber, a playwright reportedly known for his "comedies with an edge." I'm unfamiliar with his work, but he knows this turf well as a miner's son who was a rugby player himself before he took to teaching and writing for the theater.

The phrase "up 'n' under" is a term used by media sports commentators describing rugby games. I'm not certain what it specifically refers to, but I'm so out of it when it comes to sports stuff, I thought rugby was an English version of football-or is that what they call soccer?

During a heated conversation, Arthur, an ex-pro rugby player portrayed by Andrew J. Pond, impulsively bets the boss (Jeremy Young) that he can train any team to crucify his supposedly indestructible Cobblers, known as an unstoppable force in the amateur rugby league. The Cobblers' players are mean machines who use terrifying tactics. They're reputedly the roughest, meanest, dirtiest league champions ever.

The Wheatsheaf pub team in Yorkshire in North England not only has a long unbroken record of defeat but they can only muster a team of four players. They're a beer-swilling, motley crew of lovable losers composed of a divorced butcher (Shane Hale) who'd win thumbs-down in any John Belushi look-alike competition; a young apprentice miner (Tim Frank); a schoolteacher (Stephen Loch); and a car mechanic (Jeremy Young in a second role). These strongly portrayed characters are the heart of the whole show.

Arthur is more than challenged. His highly unfit team is pretty uncooperative until he enlists the help of the attractive ex-wife of a top rugby player, now a feisty fitness instructor named Hazel (Mira Vasiljevic). Before we're actually introduced to this young woman, however, she functions as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the plot and characters in rhyming couplets, initially giving the play a somewhat mythical tone. But once she begins to whip the ragtag team into shape at her gym, working them like dogs, she develops more substance and reality.

The talented cast members each create memorable, endearing characters. The stocky butcher routinely competes wearing his "Jesus sandals," for instance, while the talkative teacher is forever providing yet another anecdote about his class.

There's a scene where the team members are all working on gym equipment-stationary bikes and weight training stuff-but it's actually just a couple of benches and stools. The inventive actors are quite believable as they pantomime, milking a lot of humor out of virtually nothing. They also do a raunchy sort of doo-wop rendition of the old vaudeville hit, "Bye, Bye Blackbird," that's a riot, including the use of a gym shoe for a "microphone."

Despite all their renewed spirit and drive, it remains to be seen if the worst pub team in the league can win against the undefeated Cobblers Arms. And their coach, Arthur, keeps the truth about his bet a secret. "I'll rot in hell for the lies I tell," he keeps confiding to the audience.

As they approached the dramatic rugby match in the second act, I wondered how the actors would stage this event with only a cast of six. But the fast-moving, nail-biting climaxed is simulated using creative two-sided costuming by Christine Conley and precision performing by the actors. The fronts of their rugby uniforms are their Wheatsheaf garb. The backsides are the colors and uniform of the Cobblers Arms, the opposing team. The actors leap around enough so when we see them from behind, they become their snarling pit bull rivals.

It's quite a feat, playing two opposing teams simultaneously while frequently colliding. The match is so tightly choreographed you actually feel you're looking at shots of the game filmed from different angles.

Some of the clichés of underdog sports movies, such as the Rocky series, play for big laughs, like slow motion bits where faces are stretched into bizarre distortion during a body-slamming ballet.

Peter J. Storms created the fine sound design. In a show like this where much of the rugby game, the roaring crowd, and other situations are vital, the sound cues and background noise has to be realistic to work.

Christine Adaire was the vocal coach. The north English working class accents sound authentic yet dialogue is never hard to comprehend.

Bob Knuth's scenic design and Lori Willis' artistry created a set that seems expansive in the fairly intimate Skinner Theatre performance space. It works as an outdoor rugby field or as a locker room with special lighting and projected images. Chelsea Lynn designed the lighting.

Nolan Day was the rugby consultant. Kyle Conn is the stage manager.

Up 'n' Under is a rollicking, feel-good comedy that features talented performers playing off one another like a top-notch cast on a classic TV sitcom.

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