Does forcing a 14-year-old girl to spend three weeks taking swing dance lessons with her parents qualify as child abuse? Bridget Carpenter's play Fall makes a compelling argument that it does.
A beach resort's "swing camp" provides an off-beat setting for a coming-of-age story, and Fall features an admirable willingness to be playfully theatrical. But Synchronicity Performance Group's production also reveals it to be an off-balance work that puts more emphasis on the trivial aspects of its premise than the most significant plot developments.
Jill (Tiffany Morgan) and her husband "Dog" (Ax Norman) are the kind of couple that became a little too excited by the 1990s swing revival: They probably have every album by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. For their teenage daughter Lydia (Ali Shinall), it's bad enough that her folks are constantly dancing, but they're requiring her to spend her last weeks of summer vacation at swing camp on a Pacific island.
For Lydia, the only consolation is once-a-week classes in her obsession, scuba diving. Otherwise, she must spend all of her time either in the company of or hiding from people learning steps like The Balboa and The Shim-Sham. With almost no one her age around, she focuses on her parents' bookish buddy Mr. Gonzalez (Jonathan Green), who, strangely enough, has come to swing camp without his wife or daughter. She's also befriended by the sympathetic dance teacher Gopal, whom Cuong Thi Nguyen plays with a great deal of physical grace, although he takes a great deal of care in delivering his lines, as if still finding his comfort level.
For nearly the entire first act, Lydia simply behaves as a sarcastic, at times foul-mouthed teenager, bemoaning her totally uncool surroundings and greeting people with lines like, "Thinkin' some pretty big thoughts, huh?" Shinall, a recent graduate of Westminster High School, sets a one-note level of exasperation ("Whatever!") but fortunately gives Lydia more emotional shadings as the play gives the character more to do.
Without question, the production has a strong sense of fun. Frequently, a pair of dancers (different ones each night, all drawn from the Heavens-to-Murgatroid troupe), doing moves like The Lindy Hop, thread their way through the actors and props in the small performing space. Beate Czogalla's set design evokes the ocean by covering nearly all of the available walls in blue-green cellophane.
The play even has underwater scenes. In the first, Lydia wears a snorkel and swim fins and slowly mimes swimming over the sea floor. She picks up a seashell and holds it to her ear, only to hear Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." Subsequent underwater dream sequences aren't as funny or pointed.
Fall also features scenes in which Gopal gives dance lessons, which also can be applied to life and relationships, like the need to maintain "a state of light resistance." In fact, Fall has a disproportionate quantity of symbols vs. story. Not only are dancing and diving made to contrast each other, but the act of falling, the symptoms of the bends, magic eye posters and even spontaneous human combustion all have metaphorical value.
But Fall's plot isn't really eventful enough to support so many figures of speech. Lydia is obsessed with the idea that her parents may divorce and entertains the notion that Mr. Gonzalez is having an affair with her mother -- or her father. But Dog and Jill's marital strife is all rather ordinary and never builds to anything beyond that. The most interesting thing about them is their lack of regard for Lydia's wishes.
Later, one of the adult characters participates in some genuinely scuzzy behavior that's crucial to Fall's second act. Yet Carpenter lets the character off the hook and leaves this, the most dramatic aspect of her play, frustratingly unexamined. It's as if Vladimir Nabakov were primarily interested in Lolita's tennis lessons.
The playwright is better at exploring the rivalry between mothers and teenage girls. Stuck together at a Craft Hut, Lydia has a resentful, overblown fantasy of her too-perfect mother winning honors for candle-making. But while Morgan and Shinall effectively play off each other, their friction rarely takes center stage.
Directed by Michele Pearce, Fall represents a departure for Synchronicity. The company usually focuses on more dramatic and edgy work, and Carpenter's play, at least in its first act, isn't very far removed from the film Dirty Dancing. A show with so many dance interludes generates a great deal of goodwill, but too often Fall's script has two left feet.
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