No doubt about it: “Dance Nation” is an extraordinary play and people will talk about it.
In ten years of reviewing theatre in the Bay Area, seeing as many as 60 to 80 shows each year, I have never seen a production that has elicited such strong visceral reactions as “Dance Nation.” I know one sophisticated theatergoer who stated, unequivocally, that the play “sets a new standard for bad theater.” Someone else remarked, “I disliked virtually every minute of it,” and “couldn’t wait for it to be over.”
This is indeed surprising for a play, first introduced at New York’s prestigious Playwrights Horizon, that won the 2017 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2019 before going on to win several other awards. New York Times critic Ben Brantlee described Barron as an “insanely talented playwright.”
What’s going on here?Well, the play certainly pulls no punches. It follows a dance troupe of several middle school girls (plus one overwhelmed boy) as they strive to become finalists in a high stakes national dance competition under the direction of their talented and controlling coach, Dance Teacher Pat. This seems innocuous enough, but playwright Barron has a surprise up her sleeve. For one thing, she casts adults of all ages as young teenagers. And we quickly discover that dance is not the subject of this piece; it is not even an obvious metaphor. Barron’s subject is the secret inner life of adolescent girls just as they are entering puberty.
The point seems to be that the popular presentation of young females in America, infused with a Disney princess aesthetic, is incredibly far from the truth. Her girls are feral in their ferocity, obsessed with their sexuality, frustrated, angry, bursting with existential angst, and intoxicated with confusion, even as they feel compelled to present themselves as controlled and even dainty. This version of reality is expressed with the raunchiest imaginable language as well as the liberal use of menstrual blood (one character sticks her fingers into her private parts before licking them clean, leaving blood dripping down her chin). What we are shown on stage is unbridled, fierce, filthy, sometimes celebratory sexuality in the persons of barely pubescent girls. The nudity is the least shocking ingredient in this pie. These girls are sexual, but they are as far from Lolita as Hyperion to a satyr.
Judging from the play’s critical success, it would seem that some viewers feel liberated by what they perceive as brave truth-telling. On the other hand, others are offended, even disgusted, by what they see as the exaggerated exploitation of sexuality in very young girls. I have heard some women remark that the play is nothing like their experience, and others express gratitude for seeing their experience fully exposed on stage. As a man, I feel unequipped to form an opinion as to the script’s authenticity but must acknowledge that the work appears to be rooted in the honest experience of the playwright and at least some women commentators.
So, what did I think of it? My feelings are mixed. On the critical side, I found that for all the intensity of language and emotion, I was not involved in the drama. Although the girls were preparing for a competition, the story of that was never suspenseful or even very interesting, as all seemed focused on the ferocious expression of feral sexual feeling, separated from the circumstances. As a result, in spite of the intense performances and powerful language, I was often bored.
On the other hand, there is no denying the force of the actors’ performances and focused ensemble work. This is unquestionably deep emotional work that calls out to be admired.
I can’t say I enjoyed the show. But I also have to admit that it has demanded my engagement, like it or not, and stimulated an intellectual and emotional adventure that is rarely experienced at the theatre.
In producing this play, the team at San Francisco Playhouse has shown exceptional professional bravery. Most theater companies pay lip service to challenging, original, and disturbing work but few rising companies with an established subscription base and fashionable acceptability would go this far out on a limb.
If you are a theatregoer who champions artistic, political, and intellectual risk-taking, this would be a good time to lay your money down and support a theatre that offers exactly that. Judge this controversial production for yourself.
On the other hand, if you’re just looking for an entertaining night out, you might want to wait for Harry Potter.
“Dance Nation” plays at SF Playhouse through November 9th, 2019. For further information, click here.
Rating: *** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Dance Nation” by Clare Barron. Bay area premiere produced by SF Playhouse. Director: Becca Wolff. Choreography: Kimberly Richards. Scenic Designer: Angrette McCloskey. Costume Designer: Melissa Tin. Lighting Designer: Wen-Ling LIao. Sound Designer: Teddy Hulsker. Properties Designer: Jacquelyn Scott.
Maeve: Julia Brothers. Sofia: Ash Malloy. Luke: Bryan Munar. Zuzu: Krystie Plamonte. Connie: Mohana Rajagopal. Dance Teacher Pat: Liam Robertson. Ashlee: Lauren Spencer. The Moms: Michelle Talgarow. Amina: Indiia Wilmott.