Are you ready for some football?

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday January 28, 2015
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Ray Jackson, left, and Bill Geisslinger are among the<br>ensemble cast of <i>X's and O's,</i> a new play<br>now running at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne
Ray Jackson, left, and Bill Geisslinger are among the
ensemble cast of X's and O's, a new play
now running at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne

A docudrama about head concussions sustained in professional football sounded about as enticing as a docudrama on pedestrian safety, in which I have considerably more of a personal stake. But the new play X's and O's (A Football Love Story) at Berkeley Rep upended these wan expectations by framing the core subject in entertaining ways that encompass historical artifacts, fan behavior, athletic ethos, and cultural contexts along with the evolving knowledge about brain trauma. Pedestrians, on the other hand, just want to cross the street to get to the other side " albeit without dying.

Created by KT Sanchez with Jenny Mercein, X's and O's was developed through interviews with football players, their relatives, medical professionals, and football fans. Bill Geisslinger, Dwight Hicks, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Marilee Talkington, and co-author Jenny Mercein adroitly play multiple characters who are variously comic, serious, academic, and sad.

Under Tony Taccone's direction, the collection of short scenes flows easily together even as subject matter can veer from videos of Super Bowl halftime entertainment (think "wardrobe malfunction") to a doctor comparing scans of Alzheimer-affected brains to those of athletes discovered to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a diagnosis that can only be made post-mortem, a frustrating reality for victims and their loved ones as recreated interviews reveal, for they can only guess at behavioral changes years after a player has retired from the game. Multiple concussions are an obvious culprit. So, too, are sub-concussive hits to the head that cause no immediate symptoms. We see a couple of unnerving video clips to illustrate gridiron collisions, but they have their lighter complements " such as a vintage film demonstration of the latest thing in helmet safety with the inventor repeatedly kicking a volunteer's head.

Another leavening agent is the production's periodic return to a sports bar where patrons banter about the nature of the game's allure and the extent to which violence is part of the appeal. Perhaps it should count as unnecessary roughness when a character points out that professional football declined to cancel its games on the Sunday after JFK's assassination " with assertions of patriotic duty to play on " but it satisfies a certain sort of reverse bloodlust.

Nevertheless, Sanchez and Mercein lay claim to football fandom, and X's and O's looks not to dismantle the game but to use emerging health studies to make it less obviously dangerous. In fact, it is noted, recent rule changes have arguably given professional football a step up on its college and high school counterparts. "The safest place to be right now is the NFL," says one character, though I will continue taking my chances in crossing the road.

 

X's and O's (A Football Love Story) will run at Berkeley Rep through March 1. Tickets are $29-$79. Call (510) 647-2918 or go to berkeleyrep.org.