Dancing On Our Own: SF Playhouse’s 'Dance Nation' Leaves Audience in the Dark

A feral moment in Dance Nation at SF Playhouse. (l to r) Bryan Munar, Julia Brothers, Lauren Spencer, Ash Malloy, Mohana Rajagopal. (Jessica Palopoli)

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.

A feral moment in 'Dance Nation' at SF Playhouse. (L–R) Ash Malloy, Liam Robertson, Mohana Rajagopal, Julia Brothers, Lauren Spencer, Indiia Wilmott. (Jessica Palopoli)

Set on the competitive dance circuit—which will seem familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the reality show Dance MomsDance 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.

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And here we come to the problematic crux of SF Playhouse’s production.

Dance rehearsal victory in 'Dance Nation.' (L–R) Indiia Wilmott, Julia Brothers, Krystle Piamonte, Bryan Munar, Ash Malloy, Mohana Rajagopal. (Jessica Palopoli)

Under Becca Wolff’s ponderous direction, much of the humor of the script disappears. What might read on the page like transgressive satire becomes an earnest depiction of a notion of teenagers that neither jibes with my own lived experience, nor of the play’s reputation as a dark comedy. These characters take themselves so seriously that you can’t even poke fun at their terminal seriousness. While there are flashes of levity, such as when they make a “magic potion” out of a cup of coffee and pass it around, the amusement as well as the teenage perspective is quickly subsumed by an adult voice ruminating on suicidal ideation.

A fantastically feral sequence of a dance rehearsal gone wild gets cut short by an occasionally hilarious, occasionally frightening monologue boldly voiced by Lauren Spencer that unfortunately fails to connect with the action before or after she delivers it. The dictatorial cliché that is Dance Teacher Pat (Liam Robertson) is just that—a cipher—who berates his charges, smacks them inappropriately on their perfect asses, and is generally a stand-in for the petty tyrants who dominate so much of a teenager’s life, real and imagined.

A powerhouse assemblage for 'Dance Nation' at SF Playhouse. (L–R) Ash Malloy, Julia Brothers, Indiia Wilmott, Lauren Spencer, Krystle Piamonte, Mohana Rajagopal. (Jessica Palopoli)

The cast, a powerhouse assemblage of some of the Bay Area’s best talents, are further hampered by Angrette McCloskey’s set, an unwieldy structure of beams and struts placed on a revolving platform, which steals focus from the actors almost every time it’s pushed solemnly into place by the stage crew. It’s an especially egregious interruption between scenes that last just a few lines before the plodding revolution of the set pieces begins again. Any energy that might have built up from scene to scene is squandered and lost with every turn.

In fairness, I did attend a Sunday matinee performance. Without a critical mass of audience, it can be difficult to generate the requisite energy onstage to propel both performers and audience forward. There appeared to be a couple of moments where audience participation was being encouraged, but without being directly invited to participate, it was hard to tell.

Would those moments have played out differently on a Saturday night? Perhaps. But among the several walkouts was a young teenager who’d been sitting in front of me. I could see from her face as she left that she hadn’t seen her teenage self reflected in any of the characters onstage. And as an adult, I didn’t either.

'Dance Nation' runs through Nov. 9 at SF Playhouse. Details here.

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