Sunday, February 26, 2012

"M33" by Pittsburgh Playhouse

"M33" is a slice-of-Americana play about the the Depression Era national craze known as "marathon dances" where everyday folks, ex vaudvillian performers and anyone looking for a free meal would dance until they dropped, were sabotaged, were disqualified or won.

It is rare to find an effective, narrative-driven dance show that is not also a musical. And, while "M33" may be begging to be made into a musical at some point, it really works well as it now stands. Don't be mislead, there is definately music involved throughout, but the dialogue and the dancing are what really drives the story forward.

The lead is perfectly cast Heidi Friese as the so-much-more than plucky June Havoc, who traverses the valleys and mountains of her past and self throughout the show. Friese takes the character through the physical and emotional trials so effectively, the audience can feel June's exhaustion, and determination to work through it, even though it is obvious the actress is physically onstage for a mere two hours or so.

Fantastic character performances feed the rollicking show. Reed Worth and Kristen Sherman as married clown performers Bozo and Helen Bazoo steal hearts with their honest chemistry and comedic adroitness. Audra Qualley is an understated but deliberate dirty player who's seen the bad side of the dance hall a few too many times. Kassie Doherty is quite charming as the "local" entered in the contest. Brandon Taylor as Patsy McCarthy provides a nice, relaxed juxtaposition to Friese's energy. And Sarah Meahl as The Mick who is so evocative physically her character does not need too many words.

The set, apparently, is supposed to be "a boardwalk along the seashore". It never really evokes that (sure there's water shown outside, but it's never as specified as a shore), but is realistically executed and fits the stage action perfectly. Locations like the sleeping quarters of the dancers (only eleven minutes every hour) and June Havoc's flashbacks are completely at home on the two-level set above the dance floor. The costumes are also perfectly period, and make-up really transforms the talented young cast into a believable array of ages and character types - not an easy feat for young performers.

The only note might be a problem in the play itself. Late in the game, the play tries to set up a physical antagonist, like the Mob or one of the dancers, but these are largely distracting plot-wise, never resolved and uneccessary. After all, the marathon is the antagonist which forces the dancers into constant conflict with themselves and one another. Also, there's a strange use of life-sized rag dolls early on? At first, you think it's a gag used to get pennies from the spectators, and then it is revealed that, yes, the dolls on the stage are meant to be real people - supposedly to fill the stage more for the beginning of the dance marathon? But, the human cast makes up about 21, so maybe this is also a bit superfluous/confusing. Confusing being the bad part.

Even though the characters drop out in increasingly more psychologically damaging ways, the triumph of the play is that it manages to keep the mood light but blindingly realistic. This is not a plastered-on smile and apple pie slice of Americana, but one about endurance, metaphorical and physical. The play has as much dirt on its face as the contestants dancing for their lives. Moments are particualrly surreal just because they are true: violence from other dancers in the sleeping room, a couple having sex under a blanket while dancing upright on the floor, exhausted women warned about being kidnapped or drugged and sold right off the floor and the constant threat of "going squirrely" from a mixture of sleep and sun deprivation. Don't worry though, the play never stops being a good time.

But, after over 1000 hours, (that's over 41 days, to keep it in perspective), there's the light at the end of the tunnel of glorious prize money. Or, at the very least, there's another dance marathon.

Tickets for "M33" can be purchased here:

-The Eponymous Theatre Critic has been a longtime believer in, "Sadism is sexy. Masochism is talent." It is, in fact, the only tatoo Epony has on eastward side of Epony's back.    

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