Review: DANCE NATION by Clare Barron. Produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre. Directed by Bobbin Ramsey and Alyza DelPan-Monley. Choreography by Alyza DelPan-Monley. Scenic and Lighting Design by Tristan Roberson. Costume Design by Jennifer Oaster. Sound Design by D.R. Amromin. Properties Design by Parmida Ziaei. With Rheanna Atendido, Erin Bednarz, Nik Doner, Mikey Flores, Hannah Victoria Franklin, Marty Mukhalian, Varsha Raghavan, Maggie L. Rogers, Sofía Raquel Sánchez. Onstage at 12th Avenue Arts/Capitol Hill from January 17 to February 3, 2020.
Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of dancing going on with Washington Ensemble Theatre’s latest piece, DANCE NATION by Clare Barron who has apparently been influenced by a lifetime of enjoying shows like “Dance Moms” and “Glee” on television as well as various novels for very young adults like “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume. It’s about a troupe of young pre-teen dancers at a dance school led by “Dance Teacher Pat” an ambitious and high strung choreographer/ teacher determined to take his “girls” to a national championship. And, I put “girls” in quote marks just now because the team consists of 6 girls and one boy named Luke yet Dance Teacher Pat (who is male) insists on always referring to them, as a group, as “girls”.
Poor misgendered Luke.
Actually, Luke really is poor here, in a character development sense, since he doesn’t get a ton to do here. Still, playwright Barron does manage to give every character a moment or two to “shine” in the spotlight…even if those moments sometimes over whelm the rest of the play. And, that’s both Dance Nation’s greatest weakness and strength; it’s a play of some really terrific moments that never quite connect into a satisfying whole.
The plot of the play centers on the team creating a new piece to compete with which will center (for some reason) on Gandhi. The star dancer of the team, Amina, wants the lead role (and is pretty confident she’ll get it) but another girl, Zuzu, who feels very much like she always plays runner up to Amina, also wants the part. When the cast is announced, there are some surprises which eventually lead to tension and then disappointments before climaxing with the big competition.
Nothing surprising here with a plot focused on a competition within the confines of the bigger competition (and the competition of life itself) but the playwright does, as I mentioned, give every character their own moment or two to reflect on their own personalities and wants, with an added focus on their own lives as 12 and 13 year olds dealing with the changes going on with their bodies and emotional needs. Some of the strongest moments in Dance Nation occur with these moments including an amazing monologue for the character of Ashlee who is becoming aware of the power her body has on the opposite sex but is also aware she also has an amazing mind as well. It’s a bravura scene (and superbly performed by Erin Bednarz) but it also derails the show a bit…why is this supporting character taking over the play for so long? It doesn’t really fit into the main plot, which would be fine except for the fact it really is quite a long sequence.
Yet, it’s a great scene. And so are the scenes with other characters coping with getting their first menstrual cycle, or their first crush, or realizing they might be attracted to people of their own gender. This play is full of so many great moments they almost become more important than the main plot itself…which might be the intent of the playwright but it does make for a play that feels a bit of a mish mash at times. And, the tone of the piece is confusing at times as well; the characters are supposed to be quite young, like 12 or 13, but they frequently come off more like older teens which is understandable when you have adult actors playing young roles but it also just feels like inconsistent writing at times.
Like most shows from Washington Ensemble Theatre, we’re blessed with both a talented ensemble of actors, as well as designers including the usual fantastic set and lighting design from Tristan Roberson and D.R. Amromin’s sound design. This is a co-directed work by Bobbin Ramsey with choreographer Alyza DelPan-Monley getting equal directorial billing. There are, not surprisingly, great dance numbers in the play though some of the non-dance numbers feel less well staged including a difficult locker room scene requiring a considerable amount of nudity from the actors which…felt awkward since they’re supposed to be playing 12 year olds. It’s a tough scene to stage but frankly, it’s also a scene where the writing seems more like it’s meant to be adults than kids.
The actors themselves are strong; it’s a talented ensemble headed by Sofía Raquel Sánchez as the very competitive Amina and Rheanna Atendido as the runner up Zuzu (though oddly, Ms Atendido seems like the stronger dancer of the two). Erin Bednarz was very good in her big solo spot while Maggie L. Rogers provided heartfelt comedic relief. Varsha Raghavan was sweet as….the sweet girl and Mikey Flores tried to give poor old Luke some life…since the playwright really didn’t give him anything other than a desire to have his butt warmed by his car seat, as character motivation.
As the adult characters I didn’t quite get Nik Doner’s take on “Dance Teacher Pat”. The character was dressed as flamboyant gay dance teacher yet he underplayed the role; I’m not sure if this was a directorial/actor choice to not play it too stereotypical but frankly I think the character could have/should have been a bit more over the top. I was left not knowing who this character was but also kind of not caring that much either. I think some of that is in the writing…Dance Teacher Pat doesn’t really have a Big Moment to himself and I think he should have had one….I mean, his name is DANCE TEACHER PAT!!! ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!
Meanwhile, Hannah Victoria Franklin managed to hit the nail on the head of all the moms she played (7 of them?) with slight changes in appearance and a delightful variety of accents. They were all “stage moms” of one kind or the other but she managed to make each of them a treasure. I especially liked her as the mom to Sofia (nicely played by Marty Mukhalian) as the girl struggled to deal with her first period with Mom trying to offer some valuable advice through the locked bathroom door. It was very funny but also very endearing and yet a bit weird, which is probably a good way to look at this play. Dance Nation is frequently all of those things though not always simultaneously. It’s still worth checking out.