BWW Review: Excellent Performances Populate DANCE NATION at Wilbury Theatre Group
Friedrich Nietzsche said, "He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying." In Dance Nation, currently running at The Wilbury Theatre Group, a hopeful group of young dancers put everything they can into learning and perfecting how to dance, so that it might eventually help them take flight.
Clare Barron's play takes us to a small corner of America where a group of pre-teen girls, and one boy, are putting their blood, sweat and tears into an upcoming dance competition. At stake is the chance to eventually make it to a national competition in Tampa Bay, where major recognition and potential stardom could possibly find them.
This is some fairly well-trod ground and the characters and plot points you might expect will be found here. The flamboyant and intimidating dance teacher who doles out tough love on his students. The star pupil and teacher's favorite who always gets the featured dancer role. Her friend who has wanted to be a professional dancer since age two and is envious of her dancing frienemy. The overbearing stage mom. The one boy in the class who pines somewhat for his classmate and friend. And a group of other girls who fit into tidy stereotypes and can pretty much be summed up in a few words, "the anxious one," the "weirdo," etc. etc.
It's unclear whether this is part of Barron's point and intention. Since she is using the dance-centric world of the play to examine and explore the lives of these pre-teen girls, she may have chosen to keep them stereotypical on purpose, to really put the focus on what's happening to them, their experiences. At times, though, it seems like the play is mostly just a checklist of all the things she wanted to make sure to cram in there. Talking about losing one's virginity? Check. Suicidal thoughts? Check. Menstruation? Check. Body image issues? Check. And so on and so forth, but, in this case, it sometimes happens at the expense of fully developed and more interesting characters.
That is not meant in any way to diminish or dismiss those experiences or question their impact or importance. Quite the opposite, the point is that those experiences are very important and impactful and worthy of discussion and exploration, worthy of the kind of discussion and exploration that the playwright is, I think, going for. My only point is that those experiences, in the play, sometimes happen very quickly or are dealt with very quickly, glanced at or glossed over, and the audience doesn't really have the chance to connect with them or the characters in a deeper way, which might have provided for deeper understanding or examining of those experiences and their impact. The way they are handled in the play is sometimes more of an obstacle to the audience connecting to the characters' experiences, and, by extension, their own.
There are some great moments that trend the other way, where Barron shows the writing talent she has become known for. A lovely and poignant monologue by one of the girls and another short but nice moment between a mother and son are just two instances that may leave the audience wanting more of that, rather than the hard left turns the play often takes. It's at times surreal or even jarring, which, again, may have been the whole point. On the other hand, some of those left turns lead to nowhere, with events or moments that are never referenced or mentioned again.
It's impossible to know if some of the other moments that don't land well are Barron's script or choices by director Angela Brazil (who also did the choreography along with Jackie Davis). Having characters deliver monologues or lines repeated over and over again directly to the audience, practically yelling in the audience's faces, is an unsubtle and unpleasant way to get a message across to the viewers. There are many moments, on the other hand, when Brazil's direction is perfect and she demonstrates an expert ability to guide her actors to the emotional depth and truth of the moment they are playing. She draws some honest and touching performances out of her ensemble, while also creating excellent moments at the other end of the spectrum, the moments of fun, playfulness, and joy.
Brazil has assembled a uniformly wonderful ensemble who give their all and seem to be having a lot of fun while they're doing it, even if they don't always have a lot to work with. One of the standouts is the talented beyond her years Sophie Ruth Appel, who clearly has a brilliant future on the stage if she chooses to pursue that path. Her performance as Maeve is wonderfully realized and she just about steals the show. Jennifer Mischley as The Moms creates a couple of nice portrayals of different moms and one fantastic portrayal of a stage mom from hell. As Zuzu, Alison Russo really shines and at times carries the play on her capable shoulders. She's immensely charismatic and has a presence and talent that demands the audience's attention. Joe Wilson Jr. gives the kind of pitch-perfect performance one would expect from one of our area's most talented and reliable actors.
The rest of the ensemble all have their moments to shine and take full advantage when given the opportunity. Victor Neto as Luke probably has the least to do but does as much as he can with it. Michelle L. Walker does get one monologue which she delivers with real intensity, making it one of the play's more unforgettable moments. Catia brings lots of nuance and charisma to Amina, the teacher's favorite who everyone either looks up to or envies. Tanya Anderson as Sofia and Srin Chakravorty as Connie both have moments of true emotional depth and genuine laugh-out-loud hilarity. Their performances, like many of the performances in this show, are so good that one wishes they had much more to do or had a whole play all their own.
Keri King and Monica Shinn's fantastic scenic design provides plenty of room for the actors to play and dance in, although there is some playing space that doesn't seem to be used to its full potential or really exist for much of a reason. Also excellent is Marc Tiberis' lighting design, which helps to support and tell the story in all the right ways. Sound design by Andy Russ and costume design by Erin Meg Donnelly round out a very high level of production value all around.
While Dance Nation offers some very familiar characters and plot elements, it puts the focus squarely on the lives of these teenage girls and their determination to find themselves and their place in the world. It is a very in-your-face delivery of those themes, forcing the audience to acknowledge or even understand what the lives of these girls are really like, whether audience members were ever a pre-teen girl themselves or not.
Pictured (L to R): Srin Chakravorty and Tanya Anderson. Photo by Erin X. Smithers.
Dance Nation is presented in rotating rep with You Got Older, also by Clare Barron, and will be running through December 22. Performances of Dance Nation are: Sat. Dec. 7 at 7:30pm, Sun. Dec. 8 at 2pm, Thurs. Dec. 12 at 7:30pm, Fri. Dec. 13 at 7:30pm, Sat. Dec. 21 at 7:30pm, and Sun. Dec. 22 at 2pm. Tickets may be purchased through the company's website at thewilburygroup.org, with prices ranging from $15 to $38. The Wilbury Theatre Group is located at 40 Sonoma Court in Providence.