‘Dancing Lessons’ makes it a point not to

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Dancing Lessons

Riverside Theatre — through Apr. 17

'Dancing Lessons' at Riverside Theatre
Heather Chrisler as Senga in ‘Dancing Lessons’ — photo by Riverside Theatre.

Ever and Senga are an unlikely pair. He is a geoscientist who lectures on the immediacy of the demise of our way of life, but who nevertheless looks forward each day with something resembling hope. She is a dancer, with an artist’s impulse to give hope to the world, but her own — despite her bravado — has been shattered. Add to this the layers of Ever’s Asperger Syndrome and Senga’s emotional detachment, and it doesn’t seem in print like this should be a comedy. It is. Playwright Mark St. Germain squeezes the comedy into the liminal spaces, between and around the philosophy and the science and the sociology.

Dancing Lessons, Riverside Theatre’s season closer, is a thick play. “Dense” would be unkind; it’s not impenetrable … but there is a lot to process, a lot to soak up. In the hands of a lesser team, it might have fallen flat or seemed plodding. As it is, it develops moments of marvelous tension. Director Angie Toomsen’s deft hand is visible in the smoothness of the transitions and the value of the asides. Under her leadership, interstitial scenes that could have caused impatience instead revealed crucial character depth.

Heather Chrisler’s Senga doesn’t ask, or beg, but dares you to like her. Her prickly exterior is persistently maintained, and in the rare moments when she drops it, it feels true. This is a difficult space for an actor to exist in. There were a couple of times when it wasn’t entirely clear whether it was the character, or the actor, who wasn’t fully engaged — but they were brief, fleeting. Chrisler handles Senga’s slow path to intimacy with grace and patience.

As Ever, Sam Osheroff — Riverside’s artistic director — is patient as well. Both actors show evidence of a real forgiveness of their characters, who are in contrast quite impatient with themselves. Osheroff takes Ever’s wild range of emotions in stride. It’s subtle but clear when he is being obtuse, and when he is being cruel.

Both Osheroff and Chrisler manage with aplomb some particularly strenuous physical work. From the baseline challenges of Ever’s mannerisms and Senga’s leg brace to the physical comedy when the two interact, the actors are on point. There is excellent contrast used in a fantasy sequence late in the play — however, that bothered me to an extent as well. It makes sense to me that, in the fantasy sequence, the once-graceful Senga would be without her injury. But it seemed incongruous to the otherwise-accepting nature of the play for Ever to behave neurotypically in the fantasy.

Another minor quibble about this production is that the screens on either side of the stage were not utilized until partway through the piece, leaving them as a blank distraction, especially as the one on the right had the unfortunate glow of the EXIT sign illuminating a corner of it. When they were used, they were quite effective; I just wish they had come into play earlier, perhaps even pre-show.

Dancing Lessons at Riverside Theatre
Sam Osheroff and Heather Chrisler in Mark St. Germain’s ‘Dancing Lessons’ — photo by Riverside Theatre.

Dancing Lessons is not a comfortable play to watch. So much of theatre is about the trust that builds between audience members — strangers in the dark together, feeling. The night I saw it, I had a hard time feeling that trust. Despite, or perhaps because of, the honesty of Osheroff’s portrayal, I found myself constantly questioning the comedic moments. There were scenes that I found beautiful or tender that others saw humor in, and I was often pausing to wonder if each laugh I heard — if each time I laughed myself — was in response to a framed joke, or in response to some idiosyncratic quirk of Ever’s personality.

Perhaps that’s why this show was written as a comedy. That ability to make the audience question its motivations and presumptions would be mitigated in a drama, where “do not laugh” would be the default. It’s only when we are free to laugh that we are forced to question why. The issue of whether we are laughing with or at Ever is not central to the play, but it is central to the experience of the play.

The key to this piece is that, while it is filled with facts and is very clear in taking a stance on issues, it isn’t a lecture. Every rant and bit of philosophizing serves the characters and the story. At least in this production, it is very emphatically not making a point.

This text is very precise. It is so full of timely specifics that, except as an artifact, it may not stand the test of time (it’s specific to its location, too — there was a great joke about the “New Jersey Giants” that I didn’t hear anyone other than myself, a Jersey girl, laugh at). Contrary to instinct, though, I don’t believe this detracts from its impact. Rather, I feel as though it gives the piece an immediacy. This show should be performed, and seen, as many times as possible before its moment has passed.

Riverside’s production of Dancing Lessons runs through Apr. 17. There is a talkback following the Sunday, Apr. 10 performance. Tickets are $12–30.

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