The blades may be blunt, but it takes a sharpness of foot, hand and senses for actors to safely exchange blows using scimitars in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Troilus and Cressida," set in Iraq.
Staging a sword fight inside the intimate New Theatre also has its challenges, said fight director Christopher DuVal, who oversaw about 50 hours of fight rehearsal for the production, which opened in March and continues through Nov. 4.
The long, curved swords and a Rambo-worthy knife remain sheathed during the first half, overshadowed by the presence of machine guns and explosions.
Then Ajax, played by Elijah Alexander, pulls the foot-long knife off his hip and begins waving it near the faces of front-row audience members. The headstrong brute of a character with a sinister look plastered across his face gets the audience's attention.
"I'm so in my own world at that moment," said Alexander, in his third season at OSF. "There are a couple of times that I get very close to the audience "… you can't overthink it, because that's when accidents happen."
Although the blades are dull, they are capable of doing damage, Alexander said.
"Safety is a top priority," said DuVal.
All disarms happen away from the audience, he said, and swords stay at least 6 feet away from the seats.
A turning point in the play is the sword fight between the Greek Ajax and noble Trojan Hector, played by Bernard White.
It's a rare moment where the human qualities of respect and honor shine through a well-established curtain of despair cast over the rest of the story.
"It's a little exciting to be that close to them and them to us," said Alexander, about clashing a few steps away from the audience. "I certainly have one eye on them when I'm moving into a certain attack. I know that there are people sitting right to my left."
Most of the pair's 50 hours of scheduled fight rehearsal were specifically for that Act 4 Scene 5 fight, said DuVal.
The actors spent countless hours outside that rehearsal schedule shadow-fighting each other or working independently, they said.
"A general rule of thumb is that achieving five seconds of up-to-speed stage combat takes about two hours of rehearsal time," DuVal said. "To get the safety dialed in, and the effectiveness "… the appearance of violence."
Neither Alexander nor White have had any injuries while working with the weapons.
"Maybe an attack will go a little far down the blade and knock your fingers, nothing more really," said Alexander.
DuVal, an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts at University of Idaho, said working with the OSF actors was like "driving a Porsche."
The New Theatre has its limitations and gifts, DuVal said.
Accommodating the viewpoints of an audience seated on three sides of the stage is a challenge in itself, he said. The New Theatre provides a more critical look at the production than if it were staged in the large Bowmer Theatre, he said.
"It requires that a different kind of illusion happen "… they're making contact with each other," DuVal said. "There is an intimacy and grittiness to it."
White said he'd done very little fighting and even less work with swords before rehearsing for "Troilus and Cressida."
"I can't say enough good things about Chris DuVal," said White.
"I began to feel like I needed years of training," he said. "Chris met with me for extra hours ... he revealed a spiritual approach to it."
White was told to watch the film "Ip Man," a story loosely based on the life of the Chinese martial artist who taught Bruce Lee how to fight.
The film helped, said White, who copied and practiced the flow of the moves in the film.
Alexander has worked with scimitars is the past, he said, and has training in fencing and hand-to-hand and broadsword combat.
"We're working every show to get it even more precise, making it into the perfect fight," said Alexander.
White, who is working through carpal tunnel that has developed in his right forearm since picking up a sword, said the physical demand of fighting has emerged as the biggest challenge for him.
"Ideally, we want it to look absolutely real "… and we're close," said White.
"It should look like a dance."
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.