Over the past few years, the theater world has seen the rise of fully human teenage protagonists, whose complexities and life experiences actively work against a popular narrative of female fragility.
Riding that wave is a whole subset of plays using athletic competition as a frame for the powerful fears and ambitions of their central characters. Ruby Ray Spiegel’s Dry Land (produced last year by Shotgun Players) belongs to this subset, as does Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves (currently playing at City Lights Theater Company) and the upcoming Test Match, by Kate Atwell (to be performed at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater in November).
To this specific canon we can add Clare Barron’s 2018 Dance Nation, currently receiving its Bay Area premiere at SF Playhouse.
Set on the competitive dance circuit—which will seem familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the reality show Dance Moms—Dance Nation focuses on a troupe of tweens whose dream of making it to the nationals is just a few more wins away. Taking a page from other playwrights whose vision extends to non-traditional casting (Jaclyn Backhaus, Leah Nanako Winkler), Barron’s script was written for a cast of grown women of varying ages to play the 13-year-old squad members. This allowed her to write the kinds of monologues most teenagers would never dare to deliver of their own volition: a mature appraisal of one’s own “perfect ass,” a locker-room assertion that the true pleasure of masturbation lies in “mostly just thinking,” a passionate condemnation of male circumcision.
At certain moments, adult voices take over, as when Julia Brother’s teenage Maeve tells Krystle Piamonte’s Zuzu that she can fly, and then tells the audience, as adult Maeve, that she used to be able to fly—but now she can’t even remember that she could. Onstage, it plays out as confusingly as it sounds. Whether by accident or design, it’s hard to keep track of who’s narrating each moment, or even why that moment needs narrating.