BWW Review: DANCING LESSONS Enlivens Discourse on Mental Health
Manila, Philippines--The most striking observation about Mark St. Germain's two-character play "Dancing Lessons" is that its main characters spend more time palavering and less time learning how to dance. The story revolves around a socially awkward young science professor who, one day, hires a professional dancer to be his dancing coach. The guy, Ever Montgomery (Randy Villarama), is scheduled to attend a prestigious award ceremony, which may require him to socialize among guests and peers and, worse, dance with someone in public. You see, for most people, this situation hardly poses a dilemma, but with someone diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome like Ever, this is too daunting a task to be taken just sitting down.
Ever's character having Asperger's is not the surprise revelation in this story. On the contrary, Ever has fully embraced his medical condition, even to the extent of identifying which situations make him uneasy (e.g. handshaking, hugging) and demonstrating to people how his brain processes information. Aside from the external manifestations of portraying a character with Asperger's (e.g. hand gestures, manner of speaking, facial cues), Villarama also succeeds in delivering his dialogues, as evidenced by the audience's reaction every time Ever makes a witty remark or fascinating comment.
As the story progresses, Ever happens to not be the only person in this play who is going through a phase. Senga Quinn (Jill Peña), Ever's dancing coach, has been moping around her apartment and feeling devastated about the possibility that her leg injury might prevent her from dancing ever again. Unlike Ever, Senga has not come to terms with her temporary disability. Senga tells her family and friends that she is on the road to full recovery and, thus, avoids to be seen in public. Almost always cast in a featured role in musicals ("Carrie," "Annie," "Beautiful"), it is quite refreshing to catch Peña swing into a serious dramatic role. It takes a while before Peña gets our adoration, no thanks to her character who locks herself in her apartment and consumes nothing but pills, junk food, and alcohol. Senga's character is less charismatic as compared to Ever's. However, in the moments when Senga assists Ever in exploring some of his physical boundaries, the audience's affection for her character begins to grow.
The similarities and contrasts between the protagonists' self-journey are enough to sustain the audiences' interest in this one-act play. Although, it is a little disconcerting to realize that perhaps the best moments in this production happen in the middle or more than halfway through the end of the show and not during the highly-anticipated dance near the ending. It could be because the playwright has given way too much drama between his characters that there is less to anticipate from them as the climax reaches.
Since the playwright injects snippets of speakerphone messages and portions of science lectures, we may have missed these details due to the uneven sound in the black box theater (sound design by Arvy Dimaculangan). Even some video projections (video graphic design by Joyce Garcia), which should enhance the development of the story, sometimes feel like time-fillers for set and costume changes.
In spite of these missteps in the staging, Twin Bill Theater's comeback production is a breather from all the ensemble-driven plays and musicals of this theater season. Having previously staged shows like "Dog Sees God," "Suicide Incorporated," "My Name is Asher Lev," and "Wit," this small theater company is relentless in choosing the material that not only entertains but also informs. It is in initiatives, like this play, the discourse, for example, on mental health awareness in the country, is enlivened.
Directed by Francis Matheu, "Dancing Lessons" plays at the Power Mac Center Spotlight at Circuit Makati now through August 24, 2019, at 8 p.m.
But tickets (P750-P1,550) at the venue or TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Jaypee Maristaza