The A-list director readies Man in the Ring at Huntington Theatre Company
For Michael Greif, it’s all about context. The four-time Tony Award-nominated director behind shows like Rent and Dear Evan Hansen is no stranger to creating works that define generations, both onstage and off. In town working on Man in the Ring for the Huntington Theatre Company, Greif is once again looking to cultures past and present to tell the story of Emile Griffith, the late, bisexual boxer whose deadly blows sent a rival to his death after a 1964 match.
“Every play is a part of its moment,” said Greif during a phone interview. “In many ways, you’re trying to illuminate the differences between how we look at things now and how we looked at them however many years ago.”
Best known for his work on productions that capture the zeitgeist of their times, whether past (Grey Gardens) or contemporary (Next to Normal), Greif was drawn to the ways in which the play explores one man’s identity as it is shaped and defined by its surroundings.
“Shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Rent were very much of their moments, and there were things in those exact cultural moments that informed those musicals,” Greif says. “In the case of this play, it moves through time,, so it’s been very interesting keeping an eye on how the mores of the time affect the characters and how they work in concert or in obligation to those mores.”
Written by Greif’s friend and collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cristofer, Man in the Ring sees an aging Griffith, long retired from public life and ravaged by physical trauma from the head injuries that would later claim his life, reflecting upon his past.
“The approximately 15 years he spent in the ring and the incredibly severe bashing he received in the early ’90s left with him real brain impairment,” Greif says, referring to a 1992 incident in which Griffith was beaten within an inch of his life while leaving a New York City gay bar. “What this play does is allow Emile, as a much older man, to look back on his life through some mental incapacitation.”
Greif defers often to Cristofer’s words and intentions when discussing the play, a tendency that highlights what he believes is a director’s essential role as a link between script and audience. Though the work involves a celebrated public figure dealing with extreme circumstances, Greif holds that Cristofer’s play is a profoundly human story.
“There’s a wonderful tension in the play between how Emile, as a character, sees himself in those time frames and how he is finally able to integrate a full picture of himself as a fighter, as a Caribbean-American, as a gay man living with a partner,” Greif says. “He reconciles that he can be both a loving, affectionate gay man and he can also be a hyper masculine boxer, someone capable of that kind of power and violence.”
Themes of sociopersonal integration are central to most of the works Greif has directed, something of which he is keenly aware and seeks to incorporate into this most recent work, which highlights Griffith’s native Saint Thomas as a key figure in his life.
“The plays I’ve had the greatest success with are plays about community,” Greif says. “There’s a lot of music and childhood chants from Saint Thomas that infiltrate this play.”
Though there is no official word on whether Man in the Ring will have a life post-Huntington, as many of Greif’s regional and off-Broadway productions have, he notes the importance of mounting several productions of a work as instrumental for its development.
“I think the art benefits from multiple productions,” Greif says. “The works get better and it gives the artists the opportunity to make them better. There’s a lot of different venues and opportunities for the works I choose, so there’s not just one goal. I would certainly love for this play to have more productions, though.”
MAN IN THE RING. THROUGH 12.22 AT CALDERWOOD PAVILION AT THE BCA. 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG