Friday, September 8, 2017

Dancing on the Edge with Theatre Novi Most

It's easy to romanticize the past. 


Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most

Or at least that's what I was thinking while watching Dancing on the Edge, the latest show from Theatre Novi Most, last night. Centering on the tumultuous romance of legendary dancer Isadora Duncan and Russian poet Sergei Esenin, the story takes place in a Russia still reeling from the freshly bloody Communist revolution that left the royal and political systems in shambles and millions of people's lives in chaos.

There is something about this period that has always appealed to mystic lover's psyches, I think. Between the mystery of Anastasia Romanov's whereabouts and the grandiose (albeit unkept) promises of the revolutionaries, the Russian revolution is the story of a lifetime and continues to seize the imagination 100 years later. Amid all the nostalgia, it can be easy to forget how terrifying the Russian revolution really was and how devastating it was to Russian society, some effects of which are even seen to this day.

To its credit, Dancing on the Edge shows a darker side of this revolution through the hidden, somber side of Isadora and Sergei's romance. It's lust at first sight for both when they first meet, despite the fact that neither speaks the other's language. The longer they are together, however, the more it becomes apparent that Sergei and Isadora will be unable to overcome the burdens in front of them and they may never be truly happy. Isadora may perform for party leaders, but she cannot command their financial support. She may have taken in a school of young girls, but she cannot support them (or any of the other millions of starving Russians), as evidenced by a vivid passage describing people eating raw meat from a dead horse on the street. Sergei may scribe overwrought poems and dream of worldwide acclaim, but the arms of his infamous lover cannot save him from his demons. To watch Dancing on the Edge is to really see a country and a relationship in chaos, tumbling over one another and stumbling into the future, battered by the writhing tides of history.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most

Starring as the lovelorn Isadora is Lisa Channer, who channels her best rebellious Gibson girl. Channer embodies an empathetic soul, and it's easy to see how the real Isadora may have been so beloved if she behaved with such compassion. Sasha Andreev stomps through the script as Sergei, quickly bringing the audience into the tormented psyche of a disillusioned revolutionary. Andreev wields his body like a weapon, bringing the most physicality to this role that I've seen him show on stage yet. Sergey Ngorny and Katya Stepanov stand in as multiple supporting characters, gently ushering the audience through the story and slowly providing context to Isadora and Sergei's pasts as their relationship unfolds.

The set is simple in elements, generally composed of antique furniture strategically strewn about the stage and covered in bedsheets. The sheets are periodically removed and pieces rearranged to form multiple mobile vignettes, and the fluidity of their placement keeps the environment fresh and the scene changes short. The lighting is absolutely gorgeous, leaving the stage awash in a warm effervescent glow that is perfected with twinkling, dangling lights from the ceiling that give a period starlight or candlelight effect. The shimmering patina it creates bathes the performance in a sepiatic
glow that really feels like you're stepping back 100 years, and it was my favorite element of this performance.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most

I don't know how I got the perception that Dancing on the Edge was billed as more of a dance show than a play, but that's definitely not the case. There are some simple dances in the performance to be sure, but they're not the focal point (nor should they be). The real story here is Isabella's relationship with Sergei and their equally tumultuous relationship to Russia itself. I can't really describe how I felt about that. The actors clearly had a relationship with their characters and each other, and it felt like they were engaged in the story. But something always felt a little distant to me, as if the whole thing were happening at arms length and we were seeing the action through a pensieve. It held my attention but didn't pull me in viscerally. I was left wanting a little more, and although I'm not sure how to define that, I think Dancing on the Edge could continue to be developed into a tighter, more emotional piece. The bones are there; the screws just need to be tightened a little bit.

If you like fraught romance, learning about early 20th-century Russia, or just want to see some damn good stage lighting, Dancing on the Edge is for you. I enjoyed it despite the distance I felt, and the cast and crew clearly have put a lot of thought and work into the script. No matter what you're guaranteed to learn something about this period that you didn't know before, and you'll hear some Russian on stage to-boot. You only have a few days to check it out (the limited run closes on September 10!), so head quickly to the Southern Theater to see it this weekend. Tickets cost $24 at the door; more information can be found by clicking on this link.