Off-Broadway: No Mercy by SMJ
Guest Review By Katherine Hebert
NOTE: This review was originally written for OnStage Blog on July 10, 2022 by Katherine Hebert. Broadway DNA CEO Natalie Rine served as line producer on this production.
Photo by Danny Bristoll of Kayla Zanakis
Legacy, family, cultural identity, queerness and female wrestling, all of this and more can be found in No Mercy the latest new work from the 2022 Moxie Incubator program to premiere at the DR2 Theatre. Following Maya Cruz (Kayla Zanakis), the only Latina wrestler in her league who dreams of walking away from the TCW championship with the coveted golden belt that has evaded her thus far. In order to do so Cruz must face her white colleagues who each craft their own unique barricade preventing Cruz from achieving her goal. With time running out and the world watching, Cruz soon discovers how far she is willing to compromise herself in pursuit of this, and how supportive her teammates actually are.
No Mercy is a 90-minute fast-paced piece by playwright SMJ who aims to use the world of female wrestling as a lens to explore the barriers nonwhite women have to face that have been created by white women who are simultaneously vocalizing their support while tearing their nonwhite counterparts down at every turn. In order to bring home the championship, Cruz must fight her white girlfriend Liv Quinn (Chloe Lexia Worthington), her racist rival Sophie Bell (Maya Musial) and her white boss Nat Johnson (Charlotte Vaugn Raines).
A standout component of No Mercy is Alex Might’s fight choreography which constantly toes the line between the very fake world of wrestling and the very real animosity brewing between these four characters. As a result the audience can rarely tell what parts of their fights are entertainment for their fans and what parts of their fights take a turn into reality or if they did at all.
This effect is accomplished with brilliant performances of each member of this four-person cast who each are constantly juggling their stage persona put on for their wrestling fans and their character’s authentic self. Chloe Lexia Worthington brings a nuance to the ditzy, hyper-sexualized persona that Liv Quinn puts on both in the ring and out. Maya Musial gives Sophie Bell a realism to a character that normally feels like a stock trope of the racist white woman hiding behind the guise of patriotism, Musial plays a villain that we have all met at some point in our lives with an unsettling and oftentimes funny authenticity. Charlotte Vaugn Raines gives Nat Johnson a no-nonsense, performative edge, creating a complicated portrait of a woman who has the bottom line in mind at all times and does not care who she has to step on along the way to achieve that. Finally our protagonist, Kayla Zanakis gives a phenomenal performance, portraying Maya Cruz’s struggles with navigating her societal and cultural expectations and the compromises she is forced to make at each intersection on her journey. These performances are rounded out by brilliant co-direction from Miranda Cornell, SMJ and Alex Might which carefully balances the heightened world of pro-wrestling and the grounded reality each of these women live in day to day creating the perfect blend of action and acting.
No Mercy is billed as an interactive experience and true to this the audience is encouraged to cheer, curse and stomp during the actual matches between the women. This serves as a way to mimic the fervor of a pro-wrestling crowd and in the moment is effective. I have not been in an audience so actively engaged in what they were seeing in a long time. This is one piece I would be interested to see in a larger space or in the round. More space would allow the creative team to take these interactive elements further, maybe hand a card to a stagehand or usher and have them be the ring girl or have a concessions element thrown in once the fight starts, elements like this would further immerse the audience into this interactive headspace. Obviously the piece is effective without these elements but I would be curious to see how far the team would take this concept with more budget and space.
There is a real effort to bring us not just into these characters’ reality but to pull us into the headspace of our protagonist. This is achieved with clever choices by the creative team with sound designer Sasha Mahalia Hawkins and lighting designer Elizabeth M. Stewart being particular standouts. Additionally costume designer Aryn Geir did a brilliant job creating designs that clearly communicated each wrestler’s “gimmick” long before any of them spoke.
SMJ’s No Mercy is an incredible exploration of minority women navigating spaces where white women are the predominant presence and intersectionality is the last thing on their minds. At each turn in Maya Cruz’s story we are introduced to a new barrier presented by another white woman claiming to be on her side while her proverbial fingers are crossed behind her back leaving Cruz as well as the audience with the bleak conclusion that all of these “stumbling blocks” are actually just racism in different hats. The three wrestlers in Cruz’s way are out only for themselves, be it maintaining or exceeding their bottomline, making their fanbase happy or just obtaining more accolades than the person next to them. SMJ’s decision to explore these topics using the world of female pro-wrestling is brilliant for a variety of reasons. Pro-wrestling creates characters and stories that by their very nature are broad, heightened and “on the nose”, each women’s wrestling persona embodies a stock trope of femininity engineered to appeal to the white male gaze. Quinn as the ditzy unhinged sex-pot, Bell as the wholesome “All-American” young lady, Nat as the villainized high-powered career woman and finally Cruz who constantly struggles with having to put on a “Spicy Latina” persona while trying to find a way to bring her authentic self into the ring that does not exploit, disrespect or fabricate where she has come from. By using pro-wrestling as their lens SMJ is able to have these archetypes battle it out literally in front of a pro-wrestling audience which it should be mentioned are typically predominantly male. SMJ is also able to explore how these archetypes hurt the women that take them on in real life as well as the people that are passed over because of them. Where it would have been easy to paint Cruz’s competitors and coworkers as all bad what they instead offer is a nuanced exploration of how all of these personas ultimately limit everyone from reaching their full-potential and how continuing to cater to the white male gaze and influence has a profoundly dismal effect on nonwhite women. This message is delivered without a cis white man ever stepping onstage.
No Mercy concluded its run at the DR2 Theatre today but one thing is for certain SMJ is a playwright to watch and I will certainly be in the front row the next time one of their works is produced and I will be watching to see where No Mercy goes next.
“No Mercy” by SMJ. Directed by Miranda Cornell, Alex Might, and SMJ.
Features performances by Kayla Zanakis, Maya Musial, Charlotte Vaughn Raines, and Chloé Lexia Worthington.
Fight and intimacy direction by Alex Might, lighting design by Elizabeth M. Stewart, set design by Kailey Hays-Lenihan, sound design by Sasha Hawkins, costume design by Aryn Geier, stage management by Aryn Geier and Ashley Milling.
Line produced by Natalie Rine (Broadway DNA) and Angelica McEwan. The show is executive produced by K. Hernandez Friend and Madelyn Paquette of Moxie Arts NY.
“No Mercy” ran at The DR2 Theatre in Union Square from July 7th through July 10th, 2022. Run time approximately 90 minutes (0 intermissions). “No Mercy” is an Actor's Equity Association Approved Showcase.
For more information visit https://www.smjwrites.com/.
Broadway DNA Blog is a reader-supported publication part of Broadway DNA, an international producing & licensing agency focused on connecting new shows to international opportunities. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.