Review: TimeLine Theatre’s “When She Danced”

 TimeLine crafts a superb production from a flawed script

When She Danced at TimeLine Theatre

TimeLine Theatre presents:

When She Danced

by Martin Sherman
directed by Nick Bowling
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Like its depiction of the Isadora Duncan’s life, When She Danced is a glorious, extravagant mess. Amid a cacophony of languages, lobster, lovers and champagne Timeline creates something that’s both richly entertaining and immensely frustrating with Martin Sherman’s portrait of the mother of modern dance.

"When She Danced" at TimeLine Theatre We know La Duncan (who was called such when the article really meant something, unlike today’s trashy La Lohan vernacular) redefined an entire art form. But because film of her dancing is rare unto non-existent, we can only imagine the extraordinary aura of grace and beauty she projected while in motion, inspiring thousands of barefoot disciples the globe over. That very legacy all but ensures that any portrait of Duncan will fall short. Have an actress attempt to dance like Duncan and they will inevitably suffer by comparison. Leave the dancing out, and you lose the essence of the woman’s existence.

Sherman takes the safer route, leaving the dance completely to his audience’s imagination. Rather than choreography, we get rapt exposition by Duncan’s slavishly devoted household coterie. And of course, the lack of a visual is a problem: because we never see Duncan dance, her art – or the lack thereof – becomes the 800-pound gorilla on the set. Dance is the thing that defines not only Duncan, but every relationship and reaction to her. Without it, those relationships and reactions ring a bit hollow. For those who crave a glimpse at the movement that made the legend, When She Danced is a tease. We hear all about the sheer, life-changing fabulousness of Duncan’s dancing, but we never see it.

That said, director Nick Bowling has crafted an immensely watchable and lavishly beautiful production. We meet Isadora (Jennifer Engstrom) in her 40s. She claims to be past her prime, but in Engstrom’s alternately regal and unabashedly sensual performance, Duncan is every inch magnificent. Her Paris flat is in a state of exuberant and sophisticated chaos. Among the larger-than-life personalities coming and going: Duncan’s much younger Russian husband Sergei (Patrick Mulvey), gleefully capturing an unstable firebrand with little but sex and suicide on the brain); Alexandros Eliopolos, an adoring 19-year-old Greek prodigy pianist (Alejandro Cordoba, a major talent who delivers a concert-level Chopin etude midway through the production); and Miss Hanna Belzer (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a Russian translator whose underwritten role nonetheless becomes an emotional cornerstone thanks to Brooks’ quietly galvanizing performance.

"When She Danced" at TimeLine Theatre when-she-danced-2

The languages – Greek, Russian, English French and Italian – fly fast and thick with several in the ensemble never speaking a word of English. Bowling succeeds in making dialogue flow like music. And it’s to the cast’s great credit that even when the words are foreign, the meaning within them shines through.

It’s a shame that all these wonderfully idiosyncratic, effectively etched characters are stuck in a plot that’s rather static. Duncan’s desperate need for money provides the slight arc. The story peaks with a marvelously unconventional fund-raising dinner party that devolves into a rapturous, multi-lingual food fight. But once the rolls stop flying, Sherman doesn’t seem to know what to do with everyone other than have them fade slowly into a blackout.

In all, Bowling has crafted a superb production from a flawed script. It helps that When She Danced looks wonderful, thanks to Keith Pitts at once elegant, impoverished and richly beautiful Parisian flat. Seth E. Reinick’s evocative lighting beautifully emphasizes monologues by Brooks and Cordoba that come almost as close to portraying Duncan’s brilliance as any actual dancing might. Almost.

When She Danced continues through Dec. 20 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington. Tickets are $25 and $35. For more information, call 773/281-8463 or go to www.timelinetheatre.com

Rating: ★★½

 

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Timeline Theatre Announces 2009-2010 Season

Timeline-Logo

TIMELINE THEATRE COMPANY
ANNOUNCES 2009-10 SEASON

ALL MY SONS
by
Arthur Miller
directed by
Kimberly Senior
August 31 – October 4, 2009 (previews 8/27 – 8/30)
Praised along with Death of a Salesman and The Crucible as Miller’s masterpieces, this 1947 Tony Award winner for Best Play returns to the Chicago stage for the first time since an acclaimed Broadway revival last season. A middle-class American family struggles to deal with the loss of one son during World War II and the desire of another son to now marry his brother’s fiancé. As family members and those closest to them try to move forward, an explosive secret from the father’s past threatens to unravel everyone’s hopes for happiness. This powerful drama is a haunting exploration of business ethics and one’s moral responsibility to the larger community.

WHEN SHE DANCED
by Martin Sherman
directed by Nick Bowling

Travel to the Paris of 1923 for this gorgeous and incredibly funny portrait of legendary dancer Isadora Duncan. The so-called mother of modern dance is desperate to keep herself financially solvent and to realize her dream for retirement: a school in Italy to teach young dancers her art. Through a multi-lingual script of great heart and appeal, Sherman mixes the high comedy of a colorful cast of characters with a poignant view of the importance of the arts to move and inspire us. Through the eyes of those in Duncan’s life we glimpse her greatness and how she touched so many lives when she danced.

‘MASTER HAROLD’ … AND THE BOYS
by Athol Fugard
directed by Jonathan Wilson

Recipient of a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 1982, ’Master Harold’ … and the Boys is considered Athol Fugard’s masterpiece, valued for both its universal themes of humanity and its skilled theater craft. Set in South Africa during the 1950s era of apartheid, it depicts how institutionalized racism can become absorbed by those who live under it. A white 17-year-old spends time with two African workers he has known all his life, and through their conversations on one rainy day we see what unites and divides them. The play’s beautiful and haunting dialogue and message of hope also inspire the recognition that there is much work to be done to bring people of different races together.

THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION
Chicago premiere
by Aaron Sorkin
directed by Nick Bowling

From the creator of A Few Good Men and The West Wing comes this fascinating new play direct from Broadway. It’s the story of two ambitious visionaries — Philo T. Farnsworth, an Idaho farmboy, and David Sarnoff, head of RCA — battling each other for the rights to one of the greatest inventions of all time: the television. Through corporate espionage, family tragedy, financial disaster and the thrill of discovery, these two larger-than-life men compete for fame and credit and become part of a decision that would change America, and eventually the world.

A fourth play and the season’s schedule are still to be announced.

Says TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers:

“We have put together a season filled with bold ideas and tremendous heart and hope and guts.  Through a steadfast commitment to our mission, TimeLine aspires to be a place for people to come together, to feel a sense of community and to engage in a dialogue about our place in history. The work on our stage allows audiences to lose themselves in a story from the past in order to perhaps better understand where we are today and where we might go tomorrow. During our 2009-10 season, we look forward to exploring some defining moments of the 20th Century together — moments of art and beauty, of friendship and understanding, and of innovation and exploration.”

Creative team biographies after the fold.

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