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City Theatre production lobs a look at competitive world of tennis

PTRTKLASTMATCH01041416
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Danny Binstock (from left), Robin Abramson, Daina Michelle and JD Taylor rehearse 'The Last Match' at the City Theatre on Monday, April 5, 2016.
PTRTKLASTMATCH02041416
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Danny Binstock (right) and JD Taylor rehearse 'The Last Match' at the City Theatre on Monday, April 5, 2016.
PTRTKLASTMATCH04041416
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Robin Abramson, right, and JD Taylor rehearse 'The Last Match' at the City Theatre on Monday, April 5, 2016.
PTRTKLASTMATCH03041416
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
(from left to right) Robin Abramson, Daina Michelle, and JD Taylor rehearse 'The Last Match' at the City Theatre on Monday, April 5, 2016.

For tennis newbies, and even some longtime fans, deciphering its rules and language is almost as difficult as perfecting a killer backhand.

Who would name a zero score love when it’s something you hate to have?

Why does someone have to score not one but two points in a row to break a 5-5 tie game? Why do players have to win games, sets and matches when just racking up points are good enough for the Steelers?

As City Theatre approaches the April 15 opening of “The Last Match,” director Tracy Brigden confesses that even after months of research and weeks of rehearsal for this drama about tennis players and a crucial competition, she’s not always clear about all the game’s vocabulary and the finer points of scoring.

Set during the semi-finals of the U.S. Open, the play by Anna Ziegler takes the audience behind the scenes, on the court and into the heads of two star players and the women in their lives, all of whom are at pivotal places in their professional and personal lives.

Russian Sergei Sergeyev, a 20-something rising star of the tennis world, and Tim Porter, a longtime top-seed player in his 30s and approaching retirement, face off center court in this intense, high-stakes match.

It’s not necessary to understand and engage with what’s going on, Brigden says: “You really just have to know who is ahead and who is behind.”

Brigden says Ziegler had a very specific and practical reason to set her play within the world of tennis: “It’s one of the only sports where you can win the most points and still lose. It’s the only sport where you are all alone and have to make decisions on your own.”

It’s not just a play for tennis fans, Brigden says.

In Ziegler’s hands, tennis becomes the engine to talk about issues we all grapple with. “What it means to start aging and go from being a child to a parent (as well as) knowing that you are not ramping up to your life,” Brigden says.

Before she was a playwright, Ziegler was a poet, Brigden says.

“She takes a brutal competition and turns it into poetry,” Brigden says. “Her language describes lives and games with very poetic themes that run through life and tennis — want and desire and what you are willing to sacrifice for a goal.”

Much of the play is delivered as narrative with each of the four characters speaking directly to the audience about what happened to them or one of the others.

“It bends in and out of various realities: sometimes they are narrating (the action) of the tennis match as they play and sometimes offering asides and commentary to the audience,” Brigden says.

To help create the world of tennis and make the action easier to follow, City Theatre brought in Jose Mieres, the program coordinator and instructor for CitiParks’ tennis program. In addition to supplying equipment, he taught the cast how to move like tennis players and how to employ some of the techniques professional players use.

“It helps them get into the heads of the players,” Brigden says.

Scenic designer Narelle Sissons created a thrust stage set that places the audience on three sides of the action. Brigden calls it “a cool playground-like (space) with a little nod to a tennis court. … I didn’t want to do a real tennis court. … We have a theatricalized game on stage — but no balls are being hit on the stage.”

Alice T. Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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