The Jig of Life
In a dingy sixth-floor room, two lonely souls join hands, seeking an escape from their solitude and isolation through the medium of dance. They shuffle across the floor, clumsily performing a waltz while chatting about their lives.
If this scenario sounds as if it were penned by romance novelist Danielle Steel, think again. Florida Stage's production of Allan Knee's Syncopation, while trite at first, is packed with surprises. Although the lead players' journey predictably leads to something positive, the story's twists and turns are unexpected, and the characters are real enough that the resolution they find definitely seems earned. Henry (Michael Onstein) is a Jewish meatpacker in his early forties whose idols, the famous team of Vernon and Irene Castle, inspire him to become a dancer. Anna (Margot White), who is in her early twenties, is the daughter of Italian immigrants. She toils in a factory twelve hours a day, sewing beads on garments. The story of these two New Yorkers begins when Henry places an advertisement in the newspaper soliciting a dance partner, and Anna warily responds.
Dancer Isadora Duncan, a renegade during this epoch, said before her death: Most human beings waste some 25 to 30 years of their lives before they break through the actual and conventional lies which surround them. These words seem to point to Anna and Henry, two frustrated dancers stifled by an exploitative and unfair society.
Syncopation takes a captivating look at the Big Apple. The year is 1911, a time of massive immigration. Anna and Henry represent two of the city's biggest immigrant groups: Italians and Eastern-European Jews. The suffragette movement and the labor unions are just beginning to form and gain momentum. Syncopation is interesting as much for its history as for its romance.
I've been practicing seven weeks now the same step every night, over and over, Henry muses early in the play. Step and glide. Step and glide. I saw the Castles do such a step. But how they managed it with such ease and style escapes me. What we discover is that the key to dancing lies less in the body movement than in the ear -- it's about one's ability to listen to oneself and one's partner. Syncopation does not catalogue the transformation of two mediocre dancers into two professional dancers; rather it is a memoir of two people who amid their awkward dance steps become more human.
Choreographer Lynnette Barkley's challenge was to create steps in a genre of dance based on flawless partnering for two performers who are far from flawless. The foxtrot and other ballroom steps rely upon the dancers' abilities to move not just in unison but as one. Wisely Barkley does not try to present the dance as something to be enjoyed from an aesthetic point of view but as a visual accompaniment to an ongoing dialogue between two people haphazardly seeking intimacy. Box steps and waltz variations are used as the platform for Anna and Henry's conversations. (They often are dancing and talking simultaneously.) The stomping and thumping of their heels on the wooden floor offer a rhythmic display of hidden emotion.
On the outside Anna and Henry are opposites. Anna is prim and proper, a conformist. Her job as a beader demands precision and forbids creativity. At the factory they tell us: Every bead has its place,' she says. And like the beads she meticulously sews on to dresses, Anna also has her place. She takes the same path to work every day, looks in the same shop windows, strolls around the neighborhood with her father every Sunday, and plans to marry the respectable Mr. Parva. Henry, on the other hand, is a rebel. He has never settled down or married. He's a loner who hangs out at the docks with ne'er-do-wells and rabble-rousers, talking about philosophy and the rights of laborers. Luckily Knee has given each character the dimension necessary to keep a two-person show engaging. It turns out that under all her petticoats, Anna wears outrageously beaded stockings. Henry, too, has quiet corners and a gentle side. His grittiness and gruff bark are not a façade but signal that he is a lonely man; they are as integral to his personality as his more vulnerable side. This is refreshing. Onstein has exquisite control over his body language. He manages to convey a wide range of moods through simple steps. Onstein's real talent as Henry is his humor. He's a vivid teller of jokes and anecdotes, and perhaps because he often does a soft-shoe as he talks, his character is delightfully grounded in the early 1900s.
Henry repeatedly tells Anna: You gotta stop thinking. You can't dance and think at the same time. Margot White's Jessica Lange good looks (despite her awkward two-step, she is both elegant and sensible) vividly clash with Onstein's brash mannerisms and his five o'clock shadow. Onstein's dance sequences, while not technically sophisticated, are light and breezy, giving his character a physical confidence and a solid stage presence that occasionally overshadows White. The actress's physicality conveys her character's awkwardness: a rigid upper body and an almost wincing facial expression that appears practically every time Henry tries to dance with her. White does not transform from puritanical to licentious between scenes but, because the script repeatedly calls for her to be shy, she employs an articulate vocabulary of gesture. But it would be nice to see more range. Also the play should pay a little more attention to Anna's repressed emotions; passion, hope, desire and frustration would go a long way in giving her character a more interesting stage presence.
While well crafted, Knee's script is a bit slow, especially during the first half. The play is organized with a diary-style narrative technique that includes Anna and Henry, in quick asides, telling the date and giving details of their lives or current events. This device seems somewhat useful but ultimately unnecessary. We are overly aware of time's slow and plodding steps.
Interestingly enough Syncopation is reminiscent of the more modern but equally no-man-is-an-island-theme drama Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, by Terrence McNally. Although the two plays were written almost 70 years apart, both delve deep into the reality of Johnny's crass yet succinct declaration: There are a million reasons for men and women not to love each other. In both plays the tension is contingent on each person's ability and willingness to reach out from an isolated but safe existence into the frightening territory of another's heart. Both couples act out their relationships against a grim New York City backdrop. The main difference is that Frankie and Johnny perform their drama in bed, whereas Anna and Henry act theirs out on the dance floor. The fact that we can make such comparisons underscores the universal qualities of Syncopation. Love, isolation, conformity, and repression are all themes delivered in Florida Stage's season opener.
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