Singers pack a punch in blend of pugilism and prima donnas

VOICE-BOX by Julia Aplin, Anna Chatterton and Juliet Palmer with the company (urbanvessel/World Stage). At the Brigantine Room, York Quay Centre, Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). Friday-Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 2 pm. $15-$35. 416-973-4000. See listing. Rating: NNN

Boxing and opera?

They’re surprisingly both at the centre of the ring in urbanvessel’s Voice-Box, presented as part of the World Stage series.

Developed by composer Juliet Palmer, writer Anna Chatterton (read an interview here) and choreographer Julia Aplin through Harbourfront Centre’s Fresh Ground, Voice-Box is an intriguing series that features a quartet of singers and pugilists who explore – through jab, song and comedy – what it means to be a female boxer.

Organized as a series of six fights that pit the women against each other in different combinations, the hour-long show is long on energy and some wonderful (mostly) a cappella singing, with occasional percussive sounds that include the boxing bell, the thwack of glove against glove, skip-ropes hitting the floor and the rasp of the Velcro on the gloves.

There’s a section on the history of women boxers – in Canada they weren’t allowed in the ring until 199l, when lawyer and aspiring boxer Jenny Reid won that right – that includes the work of one of the show’s co-creators and performers, Savoy Howe, whose sense of comedy is as unerring as her upper cut.

In fact, humour is one of the show’s strengths, with Chatterton flouncing about the ring (Teresa Przybylski’s black-and-red set is its own knockout) as the card girl in a red dress, later serving tea to the audience. In the first fight, Howe takes out a taciturn opponent who finally caves in under a headsplitting punch, and later the cast prance around the stage in an Isadora Duncan-style dance.

There are some serious moments, too, in which Chatterton’s text cleverly explores the idea that women boxing is “a girly brawl, a slugfest…not a spat but a sport.” The inclination at first is to apologize when one woman hits another, but the winning cast (including Chatterton, Aplin, Palmer, Howe and singers Neema Bickersteth, Christine Duncan and Vilma Vitols) proves that the contests can be exhilarating for fighters and audience alike.

As Vitols’ character, The Vilminator, explains in song, she chooses to be black and blue rather than a victim. In another memorable episode, she sings a seductive aria from Carmen as the others attack her both singer and character are figures of power.

Another standout scene is a sedate tea party involving Bickersteth and Vitols, beginning with polite talk, sips of tea and giggles even as the women eye the boxing gloves at their feet. The action turns more intense as they put them on and blows move from taps to jabs and verbal insults.

Voice-Box is entertaining, that’s for sure, but it has a message, too: one of female empowerment.

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