Berkeley Rep examines a troubled sport

Berkeley Rep collides with footballBerkeley Rep- Troubled Sport

The subtitle of the sizzling, eye-opening docudrama, X’s and O’s, now at Berkeley Rep, is A Football Love Story.  If this is a love story, the sport of football must be cringing at what the Rep might have created if it had focused on hate, or even mild dislike.  Not that there’s not plenty of love of the sport on display on the Thrust Stage–we’re shown how it’s part of the lives of both fans and players, essential to their upbringing and integral to their identity–but while X’s and O’s acknowledges this powerful affection, it zeros in on the downside of the sport, on what medical science has confirmed about the devastating consequences of human bodies smashing deliberately and repeatedly into one another.

Confusion, depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide.

Yet though X’s and O’s is sobering, it’s far from a downer.  At times it’s even brightly cheery, and I was consistently entertained by it.    Assembled by football fans KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein from hours of interviews with doctors, players, fans and the bereaved, and shaped at Berkeley Rep’s play development program, The Ground Floor, the result is akin to a great PBS show, like two recent series, Your Inner Fish and How We Got to Now, that inform but aim to do so entertainingly.  There can be downsides to the approach, elements of cuteness and talking-down, but I’m happy to report that X’s and O’s isn’t marred by these flaws.  In its terms it’s an admirable piece of work.

Credit must be given to the half dozen game actors–Bill Geisslinger, Dwight Hicks, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson Jenny Mercein and Marliee Talkington–who, playing multiple roles, team up for 90 minutes that mingle the history of the game, from its invention in the late 19th century, through its full racial inclusion, to now, and its troubled status today.

One irony, related by a sports doctor, is that in the light of changes instituted by the NFL, pro ball may be the safest place to play the game.  In other words. kids, and the parents of kids: heads up!

Though the actors get high marks, the highest go to the authors who assembled the results of their investigation so cannily and fairly, and especially to the Berkeley Rep creative team, headed by Tony Taccone who directed the docudrama.  The production is simply smashing, one of the best examples I’ve seen of the seamless meshing of set design (Todd Rosenthal) costume design (Meg Neville) sound design (Jake Rodriguez) and knockout lighting and video work (Alexander V. Nichols), a wonder unto itself, into a smoothly streamlined whole.  If anyone doesn’t already know that video has added exciting, versatile new elements to theatrical expression, revelation awaits them at Berkeley Rep.

X’s and O’s plays on Addison Street until March 1st, followed by Tartuffe directed by Dominique Serrand.  The hit music drama, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, returns for an encore engagement in February.  For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit