Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see Bill's review of The Coast Starlight
In Liverpool, Ohio, tough Dance Teacher Pat (Daren Scott) is hoping his team wins a national championship in Tampa Bay, Florida. He creates a short dance piece that pays tribute to Gandhi, and he believes it will blow the judges away. Instead of focusing on dance, Barron's script is devoted more to the personal lives of the teammates. As the group gets ready for the competition, they face typical issues that middle-schoolers often go through: the intelligent Ashlee (Andrea Agosto) is nervous to express her inner thoughts; a gifted member of the team, Zuzu (Joy Yvonne Jones), is losing her passion for dance; and the initially low-key Amina (Wendy Maples) is not treated with much respect by Pat. Instead of following a traditional storyline, the play is a series of vignettes with different scenes focusing on the girls, plus the more innocent male member of the group, Luke (Eddie Yaroch).
The playwright mixes scenes that are straightforward and relatable with others that are unconventional and experimental. One minute, two characters are taking part in a realistic conversation, while the next moment, someone randomly bursts into a stylish and surreal speech. The strangest segments are those in which most of the characters join together in solidarity and speak in profane and graphic dialogue that's comically over the top. Barron plays both the realistic and surreal moments with clever humor and insight that is often hilarious and sometimes dark. The only part of the tale that feels rushed is a decision Zuzu makes that impacts her close friendship with Amina. While her choice could be seen as believable, it still comes across as abrupt onstage. Moxie's co-founder and Executive Artistic Director Jennifer Eve Thorn directs, successfully navigating the stories through the extreme tonal shifts.
Thorn stages moments ranging from revealing discussions to gross-out humor. She allows these different types of sequences to breathe on Reiko Huffman's dance studio-themed set, which does not appear to be an easy task, given how the mood of the piece shifts in the blink of an eye. Though there's not as much dancing as you might expect from a show called Dance Nation, Lesa M. Green's choreography is a humorous as well accurate representation of modern-day youth dance competitions.
Nate Parde's lighting, Kate Bishop's costumes, and sound designer Lily Voon's music choices are all strongly executed during the dance scenes. It's also impressive how good the ensemble is at dancing, given that most of them are not known for having professional dance backgrounds.
In addition to the aforementioned performers, Farah Dinga, Li-Anne Rowswell, and Sandra Ruiz are convincing as students who are slowly finding their place in the world. All students have a moment to shine with a monologue that gives depth and understanding to their roles. Sarah Karpicus Violet (she briefly plays a student, Vanessa, in an introduction) depicts various mothers that range from very loving to manipulative. Her interactions with the other performers illustrates how the parents' relationships with the contestants both positively and negatively affect them. Scott has very funny comedic timing as the blunt dance teacher Dance Teacher Pat, and he creates enough moments of subtle tenseness so the audience is also able to take the him seriously.
Moxie's 15th season opener is an enjoyably unexpected and humorous staging that keeps theatregoers engaged, because of Thorn's direction and the performances by the cast. This is a positive example of how casting adults in unconventional roles pays off.
Dance Nation, through September 15, 2019, at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego CA. Tickets start at $25.00 and can be purchased online at www.moxietheatre.com or by phone at 1-858-598-7620.