The tagline for the new show mounted by the Gamm Theatre in the vast, ark-like space in the Pawtucket Armory Drill Hall and featuring three experts in on-stage physicality is "Tricks of the trade revealed!" but don't let this spoiler alert dissuade you: some revelations ruin things; others enrich them. The few tricks that are really revealed in this snappy, and, ultimately, secretive show about the tools and techniques of stage combat will give you a new appreciation for the role of physicality in stage productions: for the thought that goes into its development and the energy and precision that go into its execution. Starting with fist-fights, and moving on to sword, staff, gun, and dagger fights, professional fight master Normand Beauregard and his colleagues Jim Beauregard and Paul Kochanek lead us on a sort of aerial tour of the stage-fight landscape. The audience sees a lot, and much of what we see is dazzling, but there seem to be plenty of unexplored depths left at show's end. As Norman Beauregard explains at the beginning of the show, there's more to stage physicality than can be taught over a four-year college course, let along a two-hour introduction. But, through demonstration and elucidation, he gets pretty far.
The show has enough slapstick to enthrall very young children - a couple of five- or six-year- olds at the performance I saw were doubled over with manic glee during some of the fights - and, I suspect, enough seductive theatre talk to engage curious adolescents. The audience ought to hearten even the most stolid cynic; those who weren't actually children certainly felt like them by show's end. I was hypnotized. The fights are fascinating, and no amount of explanatory talk can diminish their magic, which doesn't emanate from the weapons selected or the specific punch chosen for just that angle to the audience, but from the inches of air between the fist and the face. Still, for all the virtuosity on display here, I left hoping that if the Gamm makes a series of the "tricks of the trade" imprint, the next show is even more elemental: How do actors take the written word and make it song? Less explosive than a punch, that's still the real mystery of the theatre.
*** "A Night at the Fights" is, well, all about fighting. There are goofy flips and punches, but there are also slightly scary swordfights and a gunshot (though no victim). It's all in good fun, but it might also be upsetting to some viewers.