Tuesday, May 8, 2018

4 (2018-2019): Review: DANCE NATION (seen May 3, 2018)

"Pussy Galore"

In 2003, a powerful, controversial film called Thirteen made a splash for the vigorous honesty with which it depicted the angst of a 13-year-old girl (played by Evan Rachel Wood) as she tests the boundaries of her budding adulthood.
Company of Dance Nation, with Thomas Jay Ryan. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Dance Nation, a semi-absurdist, Susan Blackburn Prize-winning comedy by the blossoming young playwright Clare Barron at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, has something similar in mind (minus the drugs and crime), It  expresses the preoccupations and anxieties--mainly about sex, status, and self-image--of a group of pre-adolescent girls (and one boy, Luke, played by Ikechukwu Ufomadu) belonging to an Ohio dance team hoping to win a national competition. 
Eboni Booth (center) and company of Dance Nation. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Like the R-rated Thirteen, the uneven Dance Nation’s gritty language, situations, and brief but total nudity might deter some parents from taking their own 13-year-olds to see it. Given its stark candor, and its focus on emergent female empowerment, however, they may find the play’s depiction of the kids’ concerns both bracing and enlightening. 
  Camila Canó-Flaviá, Thomas Jay Ryan, Purva Bedi, Eboni Booth. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Directed and choreographed by the talented Lee Sunday Evans (The Winter’s Tale, at the Public), the play was written before Donald Trump made “pussy” part of our daily discourse.  Audiences can expect to hear its frequent iteration (and worse) as part of the girls’ often outrageously profane “locker room” talk.
Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Christina Rouner. Photo: Joan Marcus.
On the other hand, Dance Nation’s combination of realism and surrealism, satire and polemic, may not be to everybody’s taste—adult or child. The audience when I went laughed frequently, including my plus-one, a man as superannuated as I. In fact, he couldn’t wait to tell his wife and grown daughter to see it. I, on the other hand, thought much of its humor unfunny, its structure clumsy, and its eccentric style sometimes intriguing but also off-putting. 
Company of Dance Nation. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The show starts with a decidedly clunky tap dance number in which seven girls and one boy, dressed in sailor suits, are performing for an invisible, upstage audience. One girl, Vanessa (Christina Rouner, who will later play various Moms) falls, one knee of her white slacks red with blood. 

Despite what must be excruciating pain, she lies there placidly. After her team briefly commiserates, an amplified male voice is heard offering patience, but no one comes to help. A stagehand enters to remove a lighting instrument that has fallen heavily to the stage (for no discernible reason) but completely ignores the girl, who eventually is whisked out of sight.

This bizarre opening establishes an off-kilter style that sometimes makes it difficult to tell just how seriously we should be taking things. What at first seems an SNL-like parody of awkward young dance students is actually saying something deeper.
Company of Dance Nation. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This is especially so since, in the boldest stroke, the dancers aren’t kids at all, but adult actors from their 20s to their 60s, among them veteran Open Theater and Talking Band performer Ellen Maddow. Barron’s intention is to show the spirit of the girls in the faces and bodies they will one day inhabit. 

With Vanessa out of the picture, the remaining seven dancers, students of Dance Teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan), hope to win a series of national competitions that will win them a trip to receive the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Tampa, Florida. That destination is announced by Pat, played by Ryan with a deft combination of subtle whimsy and exaggerated paternal sincerity, as if it were Paris or Tokyo.

Further emphasizing the play’s satirical attitudes is the model he holds up for emulation, a girl named Sabina who, 19 years ago, was spotted by a talent scout and actually got to dance in a Broadway chorus line!
Company of Dance Nation. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The theme of the girls’ competitive routine, Pat decides, will, of all things, be Gandhi and his message of peaceful resistance. The subsequent rivalry for the role of Gandhi himself (particularly between two girls, the talented Amina [Dina Shihabi] and the slightly less so Zuzu [Eboni Booth]), is lightened somewhat by Pat’s benign decision to add a “Spirit of Gandhi” to the dance. When the auditions begin, the girls line up in A Chorus Line fashion, their faces spotlit and the first in the line, Sofia (Camila Canó-Flavía), saying, “I hope I get it.” 
Company of Dance Nation. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then follow a series of scenes involving rivalries and friendships, some of it in traditional dialogue form, some in monologues, and some spoken chorally. The issues cover masturbation, the healing power of dance, virginity, menstruation, ambition, sex, penises, vaginas, how to know when one’s in love, the future, and so on. 
Purva Bedi, Lucy Taylor, Camila Canó-Flaviá. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Now and then we watch rather vivid, even discomfiting, situations, as when a girl wipes menstrual blood from her crotch, or another humps a pillow, or the team turns into weird, blood-sucking sex robots (as Barron’s script calls them), baring Dracula-like fangs. Pat, seeing them dance, can only say: “Alright girls. I don’t know what THE FUCK this is. But it’s not Gandhi.” When the Gandhi dance finally arrives, however, and turns out to be about a clichéd piece of modern dance choreography, you once again have to wonder if a joke isn’t being played on you.
Eboni Booth, Dina Shihabi, Purva Bedi, Lucy Taylor (kneeling), Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Ellen Maddow, Camila Canó-Flaviá. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Each of the girls has her own story, of course, but that diffuses the focus. Happily, each is exceptionally well acted by an ensemble that includes Purva Bedi as Connie, and Lucy Taylor as Ashlee, in addition to those already named. Each, in her way, is a winner, capable of playing young girls without patronizing them.

Arnolfo Maldonado’s fluid set allows quick shifts among the multiple locations. Effectively lit by Barbara Samuels, it’s not particularly attractive but captures something of the neither-here-nor-there nature of the script. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes help the adults look like kids without overdoing it.
Eboni Booth, Ikechukwu Ufomadu. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Dance Nation expresses the fears, curiosity, and aspirations of young girls (Luke doesn’t contribute as much but serves as a valuable foil) but its goals can sometimes be confusing. The writing, though, is challenging and often surprising, as in its love affair with pussydom, most notably as reflected late in the play during a company anthem to female genitalia that begins:

I knew in my bones
That no one could have
A pussy as perfect as mine
And surely a person
With such perfect genitals
Is destined for greatness.

I'll take their word for it.


Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater
420 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 3