‘Lessons’ tackle more than steps

Patricia Harrelson

In her remarks before the opening of "Six Dance Lesson in Six Weeks," Sierra Repertory Theatre Managing Director Sara Jones mentioned that this was a different kind of production for SRT.

Being rather clueless about the play by Richard Alfieri, I wasn't sure what she meant. I knew the plot centered around a well-used but nevertheless sturdy theatrical premise about an odd-couple thrown together by circumstance who discover that they not only like but need each other.

I guessed that the playwright's clever twist was to wrap each scene around a dance-style -swing, tango, Viennese waltz, fox trot, cha-cha, contemporary dance.

It made sense that Scott Viets would direct and choreograph a play about dancing, though he usually applies his considerable talent to works with large production numbers.

A two-member cast would certainly be different for him. Maybe that's what Sara was talking about.

Since I've come to expect a stunning set when Dennis Jones is the designer, I was prepared to enjoy a pre-show study of the world he'd created for these actors: In this case, a finely appointed living room in a Florida condominium, the centerpiece of which is a wall of windows looking out on a seascape.

The cloud strewn sky was so real that it was easy to feel as if I were gazing at the scene from the 14th floor.

When the actors came on stage, I settled in for what appeared to be another delightful SRT production unable to surmise what Sara might mean about this being different.

I even thought I knew what to expect from the female lead, Becky Saunders. I'd been a fan since first becoming aware of Saunders as the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet." I knew she had superb comedic timing and could fling wisecracks and mischief with flair. But the minute Saunders appeared on stage as Lily Harrison, I felt a difference.

First of all, a subtle carriage declared a character who was much older than Saunders calender years. Also her character - a retired school teacher and wife of a Southern Baptist minister - was not the typical comedic role, except in parody, and this wasn't parody. Or at least I didn't think it was. Suddenly I was alert with anticipation. Something was afoot here.

And sure enough, the minute Lily Harrison encounters Michael Manetti, the dance teacher, through her closed front door, the chemistry between the two actors takes hold, sucking the audience into the hilarity of a their dynamic.

Sean Galuszka's quick-witted, silky smooth performance as Michael leads the couple in a flawless seven-scene dance.

Of course, as the classic odd couple, the two get off on the "wrong foot," a silly pun that Alfieri unapologetically gives to Michael, the sassy, irreverent gay man transplanted from New York City to Florida, where he has capitulated to work as a dance instructor.

Michael's uncensored, acerbic mouth is the catalyst that unzips Lily's own impulsive, outspoken self. The two bicker and banter in a comedic duel peppered with quips that keep the theater ringing with laughter.

Lily: "If you say your real age out loud, your face hears you."

Michael: "That's what happens when you marry outside your gender."

The nature of these characters and their non-stop, uninhibited banter provide the difference Sara mentioned. While this play unfolds around the familiar odd-couple scenario, it also unabashedly dives into hot, sticky issues: bigotry and hate, ageism and sexism, illness and loss.

Through the wall of windows at the back of the stage, the sun and moon rise and set, and the sky reflects the passage of time and the evolving moods on stage: touchy, sensual, and touching.

Gradually, Lily and Michael move through not only six dance lessons but through lies, omissions, loneliness and heartbreak. It's a rare script that can explore some of the today's raw issues with verve, tenderness and humor. Of course, it takes talented acting to successfully deliver such a script, and Saunders and Galuszka do so ably. On stage for every scene, the two not only mesh divinely, they give vital, accomplished performances.

For instance, the coarse language and humor in this production is a bit outside the box for an SRT summer show, but in the hands of these two, it feels quite appropriate.

Saunders makes you feel like it's your grandma who just dropped an F-bomb and though shocked, you giggle. Strong language might be expected from Galuszka's character, but his ill-timed trips of the tongue simply become the embarrassing faux pas of a guy with poor impulse control, and as such are exceedingly funny because they are masterfully delivered. (Still, you might not want to expose kids to this kind of thing.)

With two characters and seven scenes, members of the production crew provide invisible, seemingly effortless support to the staging. After 14 costume changes, a round of applause goes to the dressers who sent these actors fluidly to the stage, impeccably dressed in Bina Bieker's dance-themed outfits.

Peter FA Liebold's lighting was another fine touch, primarily in the ever changing sky outside the window but also in the wonderful fade-outs at the end of each scene, especially the last one. In the end, every aspect of this production was beautifully executed.

One critic said that "Six Dance Lessons" deals with the travails of two groups who love theater - gays and, shall we say, the AARP-set. This show definitely hits a rarely sung chord in the community. But that's not to say the production does not have broad appeal. As I left the theater, I heard raves.

"What a great show!"

"That was so sweet."

"What a blast!"

"Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" launches summer theater on a truly happy yet surprising note.

The production runs through June 23 in East Sonora. For tickets call 532-3120 or go online to www.sierrarep.org.

11902467
The Union Democrat
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