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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Review: Next Theatre’s “boom”

Next Theatre’s boom Is All Wit, Very Little Heart

BOOM 5

Next Theatre presents:

boom

by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
directed by Jason Southerland
thru October 11th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Of what value is survival to the human race? Everything, wouldn’t you think? But what if survival doesn’t mean that much, especially if the quality of life is compromised or if other life will go on and develop without us? Next Theatre’s production of boom, by San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, is meant to be the beginning of their season-long dramatic exploration of these themes. Works like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us are presented for sale to further facilitate the audience’s discussion.

BOOM 4 Nachtrieb’s breakout success is bright, sly, and pyrotechnically witty in its explorations of life’s beginnings and endings. It seems the perfect vehicle to set off Next’s 29th season, whipped up lightly enough to not overwhelm an audience, but intellectually proficient and adept enough to knowingly raise the stakes regarding human existence. What goes missing, strangely, is the human connection–one of those little ineffable things that make human life worth living.

I say “strangely” because connection is precisely what the lead male character, Jules (John Stokvis) wants and what he expects to attain with Jo (Kelly O’Sullivan)—but under extreme duress. What makes Jules, a marine biologist, less like a thoroughly evil villain and more “the nutty professor” is that he commits his crimes on the pretense of saving the human race from extinction. He has calculated that a comet of unknown origin will strike the earth, extinguishing all life, and he needs a female companion with which to reset human existence.

In order to establish credibility for his dry, purely scientific motivations, a joke is pounded home that Jules is “a homosexual.” The impregnation of Jo, the jaded, world-weary journalism major Jules lures to his lab via craigslist, could take place by “intensive coupling” or by more antiseptic means. That is if Jo would allow that to happen—which, understandably she doesn’t. Instead, she feels compelled to hurl herself tens of thousands of times against the force-field reinforced lab door, by which they are both imprisoned once the comet strikes.

While her sentiments are understandable, this component strains credulity the most, since there really is only so much electroshock that a straight girl can take.

The cast executes this farce with precision and verve. Its rapid-fire, whip-smart dialogue encompasses everything from modern dating and sexuality to the random chance to the rationales of hope pitted against despair or disillusionment. Perhaps the most brilliant exposition of Nachtrieb’s powers is the full-on rant that bursts forth from Jules, exasperated with Jo’s unrelenting, snarky pessimism. Stokvis delivers it with an almost joyful fury.

BOOM 2 BOOM 1-1

Finally, the audience is further distanced from the play when it is revealed to be a set piece within a futuristic museum. Directed by Barbara (Shannon Hoag), the museum piece’s curator, the play’s themes are further filtered and commented upon, while sprinkled generously with her complaints about the museum’s management.

Hoag delivers the strongest comic performance of the evening as Barbara and her line, “I wish I had more control,” is probably the play’s quintessential through-line. Layers upon layers of control issues run throughout the play, regarding the characters, humanity’s fight for survival–hell, even each character’s individual struggle for personal vindication is madly fraught with control issues.

BOOM 3 However, even if one manages to gain some control and by that control procure survival, there is still no guarantee of the quality of outcomes.

For instance, you can make people do things, but you cannot make them want to do them. It is that which makes the moment of connection between Jules and Jo so forced and without credibility, even in a farce like this one. Certainly, there’s such a thing as Stockholm syndrome, wherein a hostage ultimately becomes loyal and emotionally attached to the abductor. But attachment, loyalty, romance or connection that is not freely given lacks all savor, especially in a comedy.

Prior to the comet destroying everything, both Jules and Jo lament, in their own ways, the lack of human connection in their contemporary lives. This may be their only common bond. Yet if there is no real future for human connection, at least as represented by these characters, why should we care, not just if they will go on, but also if they have lived at all?

 Rating: ««½

 

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