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February 8-14, 2006

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Waiting to Dance

Photograph by Aaron Lewis Photography
Parlor of Purgatory: Kendra Owens (left) and Gloria Belle Whaley confront their roles in 'Waiting to Dance.'

Quintet

Five women look for a way out of Purgatory in RTE's 'Waiting to Dance'


By Marianne Messina

AT LAST, a play centered on women that doesn't feel as if half the character potentialities have been dropped from the conversation. Engaging, unpredictable, sometimes warm, sometimes brutal, Renegade Theatre Experiment's world-premiere Waiting to Dance keeps the company's brand of errant sophistication going to unexpected places.

A narrator (Ogidi Obi) ushers five women into a parlor called Purgatory, objective: judgment. Each woman is introduced by a label that appears in gilt (play on words?) on a small slide surface over the stage: temptress, murderess, corrupter, slut, adulteress. The usher has called them a "despicable menagerie" and warned us not to fall for their tears. A golden epithet appears above them: "You are here to be judged."

But we soon see that the women are not their stereotypes. The adulteress is lesbian author Diane (Kendra Owens), whose life is her writing; the temptress is photographer Nicole (Jaime Wolf), who enjoys the hidden life behind a camera. This is no mythic "stoning of the adulteress" but a complex summit of fascinating, self-aware women from all walks of life and with diverse beliefs.

Seated in sundry straight-backed chairs and a love seat, the women could be having a chatty parlor discussion, except that behind them things get funky with scenic designer Jennifer Jigour's arrangement of brown, stony-looking stalactite and stalagmite formations. Jigour is not making any statement about Purgatory the concept—she's creating an ethos. It's a world from which each woman can exit only after coughing up an ethical hairball caught in her relationship history and putting it into dialogue with the other women.

From a comical beginning, the play grows ever more dramatic until the humor hovers between ironic and sad. Between playwright Erica Hemenway's balanced script, Whitney Quinn Stebbins' perspicacious direction and the cast's wonderful acting, the production maintains incredible balance, no small feat when characters range from straight-laced, intellectual "Thompson" (Beverly Griffith) to angry, foul-mouthed Janis, and they remain onstage in continuous interaction.

Not counting the narrator who ushers the women in at the beginning and out at the end, the script calls for only a single exit and return. Janis leaves after an emotional blowup in the early part of the play. Not only does this launch an unpredictable arc, but Hemenway adds to the impact by risking a mercurial, underused theatrical tool: silence. It works magically—partly because she's created the need for dramatic release, and partly because the cast in this production can handle it.

The women share odd parallels on levels that must take total immersion in character to bring out. Sometimes the two who seem furthest apart on the surface will find subtle threads of commonality. Gloria Belle's "kinda scary" Janis is unforgettable. Griffith has managed to make her Thompson endearing even from a reserved distance that expresses "leave me alone" as clear as Janis is shouting it.

Although Waiting to Dance may veer away from a clean hard look at the mechanism of abuse, writer Hemenway seems to acknowledge this limitation in her ending, which makes her someone to watch, if just to see how she picks up this unfinished business in future work. And notwithstanding that the pay milks our current infatuation with cloying endings where the characters die to sad music, its bittersweet concept of "one last dance" is made beautiful in this overall balls-out production.


Waiting to Dance, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Feb. 18 at the Historic Hoover Theater, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $13-$18. (408.351.4440)

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