Just how serious is a dance class? Is it somewhere where the mostly girls in Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, which opened Monday night at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, can indulge a hobby, bond, and maybe even seed a genuine life-transforming passion?
The stakes are much higher than a placid, after-school pastime in this show.
For one, there is the formidable Dance Teacher Pat—never Pat, never Teach, always Dance Teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan: excellent, drily commanding), which has its own innate comic ring to it. Pat is not a camp dance teacher, but he wants, like Miss Grant in Fame, the girls to know that right here’s where they start paying—in sweat.
The girls in this case are all 13, and yet the actors playing them range all over the age map: The casting is age and color blind. And so you have to believe that Maeve (Ellen Maddow), who believes she can fly, is significantly younger than your eyes tell you. There’s a brilliant moment where she goes to hug her mom (Christina Rouner plays all the moms in the show), and Rouner looks much younger than Maddow.
They all have stuff going on, it is fair to say. So they are typical teenagers, balancing the big stuff and small stuff. One of the most charming scenes contrasts three images of being a 13-year-old girl, stuck between adulthood and childhood, from having your first period to still playing with your model horses. The characters sometimes break out of themselves to address us directly.
The play is about being on the cusp, with all the swings of reticence and wildness that can extrapolate. The dance group should be a place of community and coming together, and it mostly is—or would be—were it not for competition.
The first thing we see of our small troupe is doing a modest sailor dance routine in front of a notional crowd. One of the number (Rouner) does something to her knee; she is left marooned on stage, and there is something both comic and sad about her figure, a felled Beckettian clown.
But then winning and being the best come to bear on the friendship of the best dancers, Zuzu (Eboni Booth) and Amina (Dina Shihabi). How much do they want it, what will they do if they can’t be the one?
The play’s refreshingly confrontational feminism—war cries of “pussy” and a graphically imagined physical crushing of patriarchy in all its forms by Ashlee (Lucy Taylor)—is underlined by the occasional, gliding presence of the moon, the female principle itself. When they find themselves beneath it, certain characters gaze up, whether in wonder or in hope of benediction it is unclear.
Dance Nation retreats from too much animosity and burrows instead into hearts and minds, behind bold fronts and meek fronts, and ultimately provides individual portraits of the girls, and a picture of group dynamics that feel very real, if a little plodding and predictable. The presence of a boy, Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), remains a mystery throughout, but it’s heartening to hear him and Pat loudly voice their female allyship.
The question of belief and community is also central to Caryl Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, which interrogates the roots of both faith and democracy with a cast meaningfully drawn of different ages, abilities, and ethnicities.
In Churchill’s play, which premiered in 1976, we see people going to war, and also be casualties of war, so poor they must beg and steal and then be punished by whipping. We see an attempt to insist on a one-size-fits-all religion, a direct relationship between God and the individual, only to have the standout performer on stage—the Paul Robeson Award-winning Vinie Burrows—winningly challenge that theocracy and dogma.
There are only six actors in the show, playing a variety of roles, and leading up to The Putney Debates of 1647, which led to the foundation of modern British democracy, and the principle of votes for all people.
With microphones the characters bring their debate to us, as if we were the population of England then needing to be won over and convinced. Beyond that, in Act II, the play extends to another period of failed revolution in 1660. The echoes to the present day ring clear; what politics means, what society means, what belief means, what our duty of care to one another is: Churchill interrogates it all.
The program helpfully supplies historical notes, because Churchill through her characters does not. (Indeed, if you are not up on your 17th century British history, good luck.)
The actors try to wring as much sense from Churchill at her most linguistically rich and dense, but it’s tough work to make cohere.
Despite Rachel Chavkin’s brisk and sensitive direction (she was Tony-nominated last year for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) and Isabella Byrd’s brilliantly effective and evocative lighting design, the doubling of characters and actors and confusing segues and repetitive scenes lead to a drawn out, slightly over-stuffed performance of just under three hours.