Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Dance Nation
Olney Theatre Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Susan's recent review of The Trip to Bountiful

Ashley D. Nguyen and Jasmine Joy
Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography
Dance Nation, Clare Barron's play now in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at the Olney Theatre Center in suburban Washington, satisfies an audience on several different levels. While the plot, following a driven group of 13-year-old members of a competitive dance team, is central, the way it's told–with adult actors embodying these children on the verge of puberty–adds reverberations and depths that wouldn't come through as well with more "realistic" casting. The language is frank, direct, and often profane.

Director Jenna Place–with the generous contributions of choreographer and assistant director Nikki Mirza–has gathered a strong ensemble cast, including Olney favorites Brigid Cleary and MaryBeth Wise, on a multi-purpose set that fills the entire width of the theater space. While at first it looks like a simple dance rehearsal room complete with mirror and barre, scenic designer Paige Hathaway has included a few ingenious surprises.

The setting is Liverpool, Ohio, in 2015, where a pretentious choreographer identified as Dance Teacher Pat (Michael Wood, hilarious in sequined tops and sleek pleather pants designed by Moyenda Kulemeka) is putting seven girls and one boy through their paces. "How are you going to kick off your pre-pubescent years?" he asks before unveiling his genius idea: a dance dedicated to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi

While all seven dancers have their moments during the play, the core figure is Zuzu (Ashley D. Nguyen), who says she became obsessed with dance when she was two years old and will do anything to succeed. The others also are determined to outdo the competition while having locker-room conversations about the specifics of sex and their plans for the future.

Other striking moments: Ashlee (Cleary) talks with growing bravado about how she proves that beauty and academic skill are not mutually exclusive; the fact that Amina (Jasmine Joy) is the strongest dancer in the troupe strains her friendship with Zuzu; Unkempt Maeve (Wise) breaks out with a spoken aria about her need to "do something cosmic" and not forget the extraordinary things she has experienced; and Sophia (Megan Graves) becomes almost literally feral when she has to cope with a difficult situation just before showtime.

On the other hand, Connie (Shubhangi Kuchibhotla) is often withdrawn and doesn't say much. Luke (Louis E. Davis) hovers around the edges as the only boy in a roomful of girls. Yesenia Iglesias, in a succession of costumes, plays each dancer's mother, supportive but also giving double-edged advice like "She'll never really beat you, even if she wins."

The performance runs about two hours without an intermission, which allows the drama to keep ratcheting up without interruption.

Dance Nation runs through October 30, 2022, in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD. For tickets and information, please call 301-924-3400 or visit

By Clare Barron
Directed by Jenna Place
Ashlee: Brigid Cleary
Luke: Louis E. Davis
Sophia: Megan Graves
Moms/Vanessa: Yesenia Iglesias
Amina: Jasmine Joy
Connie: Shubhangi Kuchibhotla Maeve: MaryBeth Wise
Dance Teacher Pat: Michael Wood