I love stagefighting. Watching it feels like watching magic. Doing it feels like doing magic. My own experience in the craft is minimal (catch my all-Asian improv comedy troupe kicking ass once this goddamn pandemic ends), but I have had the privilege of coaching from the city’s best: Nathania Bernabe and Jackie T. Hanlin, co-founders of Affair of Honor. The fight and movement-based theatre company opened Playthings with Presentation house Theatre last night after months of having to pivot every punch—and even if you haven’t seen a single online show in the last 13 months, this is a must-stream. playthings affair of honour stagefighting nathania bernabe jackie t. hanlinThe Playthings cast in rehearsal.

“It’s been crazy, it’s been fun, it’s been weird,” laughs Bernabe. She and Hanlin are roommates (and bubbled together), but still follow COVID-19 protocols with their castmates and crew. Everyone’s masked, even during shows, and contact is minimal. That seems impossible with a show so physical, but they make it work with a little creativity and a crazy cool set. Three ramps (one six foot and two eight feet) make up the Kimira Reddy-designed environment, which was first brought to life in virtual reality. “She creates virtual sets so you can see the actual height, and put in a person to scale,” says Bernabe. In real reality, the set is a magnificent sight to behold, even on screen.

playthings affair of honour stagefighting nathania bernabe jackie t. hanlin Playthings tells the story of Ares and Athena, siblings and Greek gods, and the tension that rises between them as the Trojan war rages on. It’s also a comedy, with modern takes from the gods interspersed with traditional fight technique. “We have really tried to lean into the exploration of how to be as physical as possible while apart,” says Hanlin. “You can expect lots of laughter.” 

The pair said they’d had trouble getting through a run of the show without laughing (called corpsing in the biz). “The masks actually help with that,” they joke. There's plenty of joy to be found in the violence—for example, this shriek from Bernabe that fits perfectly into Cypress Hill's "Jump Around."

@affairofhonor

When you try something in rehearsal and get the perfect @cypresshill Tribute. #playthings #affairofhonor #fyp

♬ original sound - Affair of Honor

Pivoting blocking, rehearsals and even performance according to the province's COVID-19 restrictions has been a challenge, to say the least. "We’re still a workplace," Bernabe says. "Theatre is still a workplace, and you have to understand that you are shutting down an industry of people. And a lot of these people are second-guessing what they want to do now, and wondering where their place is within the means of the pandemic."

playthings affair of honour stagefighting nathania bernabe jackie t. hanlinAn image from Playthings (2019)—pre-COVD, don't worry. Performers Nathania Bernabe and Jackie T. Hanlin, photo by Zemekiss Photography.

Above all, the cast and crew of Playthings are just grateful to be in a theatre again after months of Zoom rehearsals. “To be able to physically be in the space, to hear it and be able to talk about it not in a Zoom setting allows a sort of pinging of ideas, and an expediting of the creative process,” says Hanlin. She describes the show as fast, funny, and “everywhere.”

playthings affair of honour stagefighting nathania bernabe jackie t. hanlinAnother snapshot from rehearsal. And while running up walls, swordfighting and hand combat are all cool, the show at it’s heart is about a complicated sibling relationship. “It’s not fighting for fighting’s sake,’ says Hanlin. “When we do stage combat we always consider whether it’s justified within the piece—and we’ve found a way to create a story, and a story with heart.”

Playthings is streaming live now through April 17. They’re selling tickets for $15, $18 or $22 (you choose your price). Find more information on tickets at phtheatre.org.