Running an underfunded young theater company is hard on the soul. You have big plans, transcendent artistic visions. You understand what you want to do and think you know how to do it. But after busting the bank to lay hands on the script you want, you find you cannot afford your set. You are forced to buy your costumes from Goodwill, and the actors you mean to stuff into them are laughably beyond your budget. Instead, you wind up working with the least offensive refugees from the community theater up the road, and your priority ceases to be "perfecting the show" or even "providing a meaningful theatrical experience." Soon, just getting through the damned thing is the best you can hope for. You're embarrassed. You feel guilty. You try consoling yourself by insisting you did the very best you could, and you feel wretched anyway.
And then the critics swoop down and shit on your head.
This is a sad life, so you've got to admire guys like Rising Action Theatre's David Goldyn for sticking with it. You may wonder what weird set of instincts keep them going. Is it garden-variety masochism? Do they like being flogged?
No. Rather, they know that if they work hard, if they ignore the missteps and setbacks, if they keep making friends with the right people and putting one foot resolutely in front of the other, they will eventually produce a show as good as Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.
Six Dance Lessons is the story of young, queeny dance instructor Michael Minetti and his unlikely pupil: the aged, lonely Lily Harrison, widow of a Southern Baptist minister. Minetti is sent to Harrison's beachfront condo in St. Petersburg after Harrison contacts a company called, yes, Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks. Minetti is a nut with a temper and Harrison is painfully tight-assed, and you figure they won't get along. They don't at first. But then, transcending the generational and social gaps that divide them, they discover that each possesses something the other needs, and a profound friendship is formed.
And so Six Dance Lessons is a sort of Harold and Maude for fags, and if it sounds ickily saccharine, that's only because it is. But I am one Harold and Maude-loving fag who happens to think there's a time and a place for saccharine, if it's done right. Six Dance Lessons knows its sweets, and in doling them out so well should serve as a fine example to underfunded young theater companies everywhere.
The trick is intimacy. Six Dance Lessons is one of the most achingly intimate shows I've ever seen — save for a few uncomfortable moments, director Alan Saban keeps his actors so far from staginess that you wonder if they even know they're performing. As a result, you feel like a voyeur. Actors Jeanne O'Connor and Dwayne Tuttle aren't acting for you; you're just a bug on their wall.
Richard Alfieri's script has a few believability problems — your credulity will be warped by the rapidity with which Minetti and Harrison become intimate, and by Minetti's liberal use of profanities in his very first meeting with his client — but Tuttle's take on Minetti is so carefully drawn from life that you forget all such difficulties as soon as they arise. Minetti could be any one of the shade-throwing party boys who wander the streets outside of Rising Action's Wilton Manors digs each night. You've met this kind of queen before: he laughs loudly and often, and can't quite handle a conversation that doesn't call for a bitchy witticism. When he makes fun of Harrison — say, when he riffs about her "Ensure daiquiris" — you get the unpleasant sense that even he knows his shade-throwing is a con; a neat way of avoiding serious human contact. It's in his too-big gestures; the volume of a laugh that's just a little too loud to convey actual merriment. And when the talk turns serious and his jive would be most inappropriate, his bafflement is human-sized. He doesn't ring his hands or pull his hair for want of something to say. Instead, he looks at his feet. Tuttle is an actor who respects his audience's powers of perception, and he knows how to milk a silence.
As does Jeanne O'Connor, portraying a woman so accustomed to silence that you worry the simple act of speaking might dislocate her hip. Alone for years, she has erected defenses of her own — and I besmirch neither the writing nor the acting by noting how very pitiable those defenses are. This is the intimacy thing again. O'Connor's Harrison is not the idealized paragon of old-woman virtue that you'd expect to see on a stage. Watching her is more like getting a behind-the-scenes look at the septuagenarian you see slowly walking her groceries down Oakland Park Boulevard. She's afraid and she's lonely and she has no idea how she got that way, but the closest her angst ever gets to overwrought theatricality is when she tells Minetti, "People disappear as they get older. Did you know that?" (His response: "I knew they shrank.") When she's sad, her sadness is quiet instead of operatic; when she's angry, her anger is more brittle than thundering. And by thus turning down the volume, by making sure their actors had more in common with their audiences than with the other characters currently jazz-fingering their way across other SoFla stages right now, Saban and his actors guarantee that when the play is at its most ickily sweet and blatantly manipulative, you feel like they've earned the sugar. Acting that's this awkwardly human demands some kind of happiness. Otherwise, audiences would leave the theater and kill themselves.
Which isn't to say Six Dance Lessons is perfect. Of necessity, it bears the mark of its lowly, underfunded origins. Dwayne Tuttle and Jeanne O'Connor probably are not and never have been full-time, professional actors, and you can see the seams in their performances whenever they bungle a line or overdo a moment of anger. (Sometimes, when Tuttle works himself into a self-righteous tizzy at one of O'Connor's harmless little remarks, you think you must've missed something. You haven't.) But this is less than meaningless. In theater, as in anything, the flaws aren't the bottom line. The bottom line is the experience; the depth of feeling sunk into a performance, and how much of that feeling can make the jump across the fourth wall and whatever other walls the audience has brought with it. Six Dance Lessons leaps them all.