SHOWING : July 14, 2011 - August 07, 2011
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When bitter dance instructor Michael is hired to teach private dance lessons to aging, uptight Lily, antagonism between a gay man and the widow of a Southern Baptist minister gives way to profound compatibility as they swing dance, tango, foxtrot and cha-cha while sharing more than dance steps in this quirky two person comedy.
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Pas de Deux|
Monday, August 15, 2011 ||
Two years ago, the 2008 Atlanta Theatre year opened with Georgia Ensemble’s production of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” I called I an “almost perfect play,” and, to this day, it remains one of my fondest memories from 2008. Now, Stage Door Players has remounted the production, bringing back the G.E.T. cast, director, and, well, one from the design team. The more intimate Dunwoody venue seemed to exaggerate a tiny few of the weaknesses of the script, but, more often, it also exaggerated the production’s strengths. Herewith is a (mostly) plagiarized remounting of my 2008 comments.|
Let’s call this review “Six Theatre Excellence Lessons in Six Paragraphs.”
Lesson One: The Script
Step One in creating an excellent Theatrical Experience is selecting the right script. Richard Alfieri’s “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” is a winner. A 2003 Broadway also-ran, this play is much better than its early reviews showed. Mr. Alfieri has created two characters who snap and snipe at each other, arguing their way into an unlikely friendship. Yes, he pushes our emotional buttons, but he does it in a way I didn’t mind. These are aggravating characters we can’t help but like. It starts out with a highly contrived set-up – Middle-Aged Gay Dancer is put in a room with an elderly Southern Baptist Preacher’s wife – guess where this is going! But, in spite of what seems to be a highly predictable arc, they end up surprising us. Constantly. The play is structured in seven scenes, the six lessons with a “bonus lesson” added as a coda. Each scene uncovers a different layer of the characters, changing the nature of the friendship with each revelation, and changing our perceptions of them. And, it manages to make us laugh with them (and at them) as we dance along with them.
What the Stage Door production can’t hide though are some too-fast emotional and character transitions. The larger Georgia Ensemble venue, with its necessary project-to-the-back-of-the-stalls playing style, may have hidden some of these whiplash changes. But, you know, this is a common playwrighting shortfall than can be easily overcome by realistic and compelling performances. Which brings me to …
Lesson Two: The Actors
Step Two is finding the right actors. Jackie Prucha and Robert Egizio once again show themselves to be a perfect fit. I’ve been a fan of Ms. Prucha for some time, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Her Lily is all sharp edges and fragile glass. She made me believe her journey in spite of all the surprises the script has in store. And she made me laugh and cry at the same time, just by walking across the room to answer the door. Robert Egizio’s Michael is once again a perfect match for Ms. Prucha’s Lily, a bull in a China Shop, a large warm fuzzy hiding a fragile center. Together, the two are a perfect team, working off each other’s reactions. I was reminded of the line form “March of the Falsettos”: “Of all the lesser passions, we love fighting the most.” It may be that the characters as written are as shallow as the early critics of the play claimed. But, Ms. Prucha and Mr. Egizio made them live for me. And they dance (and fight) well together.
Because of the intimacy of the Stage Door venue, they also now display a much wider range of both subtlety and emotion. This certainly makes the script lapses more palatable and definitely makes my emotional attachment to them deeper and (almost) wiser.
Lesson Three: The Direction
Step Three is conceiving and directing the piece to focus our attention on the actors. Blocking for two characters can be a challenge – the impulse is keep out of their way and let them “feel their way” through the play. Robert J. Farley has made the more difficult choice of making each and every move add to the arc of the play. Not afraid to let them sit and talk to each other for long stretches, he is also not afraid to let them square off and argue from opposite sides of the stage. Each character seems to have his or her “safe place” where they can feel some protection, and each seems to be unafraid to “invade” the other. Or maybe, Mr. Farley stayed out of their way, and trusted their good instincts. Sometimes, it’s hard to judge.
Here, Mr. Farley has adapted well to the differing paradigms of two-side blocking. The movements are fluid and convincing, and not once do they seem to play only to the middle aisle, a mis-step I’ve seen far too often in non-proscenium venues.
Lesson Four: The Set
Step Four is to put the story on a set that reflects the characters and adds to the experience. Designer Chuck Welcome has borrowed freely from Scott Sargent’s G.E.T. set, Lily’s St. Petersburg Beach condominium. It is backed by a Gulf-and Sky cyclorama that gives plenty of opportunities for mood-enhancing pictures. And, it perfectly reflects Lily’s “everything must be perfectly in its place” character, a fragile museum that is invaded by Michael’s expansive character.
Lesson Five: The Tech Support
Step Five is to add a tech support team that is in tune with the director and designer’s vision. The perfect sunsets, the back-lit tableaus, the bright storm-required artificial light, the mood-setting surf sounds, the musical selections – all are just right. If there is such a thing as a perfect “tech ensemble” – this is it. Kudos to Mr. Welcome, Jim Alford (Costumes), John David Williams (Lights), and Dan Bauman (Sound).
Lesson Six: Putting it all Together
And, of course, the final step is to make all the aspects work well together. A play should be more than the sum of its parts, and here it is. Afterwards, I can sit down and praise all the parts separately (as a well-behaved ex-pseudocritic should), but, when all is said and done, if all the elements don’t gel, it becomes a shallow exercise. Here, the effort is funny, moving, and sublime. And the final moment is still a perfect amalgam of character, performance, lighting, and song. It made me stand up and cheer. I walked out with a definite dance in my heart.
So, once again, I’ll sing the praises of Robert and Jackie, of Mr. Farley and playwright Alfieri. His bio shows that Mr. Alfieri is working on a screenplay adaptation of this, and, though IMDB.com lists it as “In Development” for a 2012 release, I look forward to seeing it.
This play is a wonderful pas de deux for two actors, a roller-coaster emotional ride that brings a lump to your throat and a tickle to your funny bone. And, once again, it’s given a production that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
And that’s no Cha Cha Cha!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
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