note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Watching a precocious 11-year-old girl’s life and intellectual enthusiasm being squashed by her embittered, resentful mother and absentee father isn’t pleasant, but at American Repertory Theater’s world premiere of “The Shape She Makes,” it’s an eloquent, emotional one-act, 90-minute piece in words and movement.
The dance-theater, performed at Oberon in Harvard Square, was conceived by longtime partners Susan Misner, who choreographed the play, and Jonathan Bernstein, who wrote and directed it. Combining dialogue and dance, they show how childhood experiences shape our lives and whether we can change. Misner portrays Louise, a single mother whose husband Bernard (Se`an Martin Hingston) abandoned her and their toddler daughter nine years ago, then returns, trying to make amends.
Bernstein, a teacher-professor, artistic director, and director, performs with this splendid dance ensemble. Misner is an award-winning dancer who performed in Broadway shows and also in musical films, such as “Chicago”. She is also seen on the popular TV FX series, “The Americans,” as Sandra Beeman, and has appeared on several other prime-time TV shows.
During key emotional scenes, dancers, including Misner and Bernstein, intensify the atmosphere with their stunning interpretations. They also serve as inanimate props, such as a refrigerator door. Julia Kent and Son Lux’s dramatic music punctuates stirring scenes.
Occasionally, a large blackboard, (located on the left-hand wall, above designer Sara Brown’s handsomely designed bar where Louise works), projects scene prompts and mathematical facts.
Adding an unnecessary air of mystery, theater personnel withhold giving theatergoers their programs until after the play, so they can fully anticipate and appreciate surprises. Entering Oberon’s lobby, we’re greeted by a young lady issuing “Hello, my name is....” stickers, another unneeded layer.
The stickers are supposed to make us feel like we are attendees at a prestigious Brackstone Testing Inc. awards ceremony, where grown-up Quincy and her absentee, alcoholic father (who committed suicide) are two of eight youngsters in the past 75 years, to achieve a perfect score on the prestigious, mathematical test.
The pre-show hype is superfluous. With Misner, the beautifully fluid dancers, 13-year-old Sydney K. Perry as 11-year-old Quincy, Finnerty Steeves as grown-up Quincy, and the rest of the cast, the play is deeply moving.
To create more intimacy performers sit on select front-row seats among the audience seated on three sides of the floor stage.
The action shifts back and forth, from Quincy’s childhood to the present, from her being a curious, insightful, observant child, to a hesitant, heavyset substitute teacher who spends most of her time caring for her embittered, emotionally abusive mother.
The action artfully flows from flashbacks of the past into the present. Young Quincy oftentimes morphs into adult Quincy, a shy, introvertive, overweight substitute teacher, known as Ms. Calvin. (Finnerty Steeves). Her resume is lacking, but during her job interview at a school, the desperate interim school principal asks her to teach full-time. She can’t, she says. She takes care of her ailing mother.
In her first day in the classroom, substitute teacher Ms. Calvin refers to herself in self-deprecating, overweight terminology, prompting students to add their own words.
During Quincy’s childhood, Louise, is acerbic and angry at her intellectually superior child, criticizing her for making her feel “stupid”. In her elder years, Louise is even more demanding and cruel.
Flashing back, Louise’s ex-husband, Bernard, calls and asks to visit them. He’s a recovering alcoholic, trying to straighten out his life and wants them to try again.
Louise reluctantly agrees to his visit, knowing she’ll fall victim to his charm again. She invites Bernard to dinner, along with her one-night stand, a kindly, caring Henry, (Michael Balderrama), whom she pretends she cares about.
Quincy is elated to be with her dad. She creates a big welcome home banner for Bernard’s visit, which Louise promptly tears down.
Father and daughter are like two peas in a pod, sharing the same interests - math - superior intelligence, and traits. With visually stunning choreography, Misner and Hingston exquisitely symbolize Louise’s torment of wanting Bernard back, loving him,but not trusting him. She remember his touch - and everything else. Her flashback of his abandoning her, while baby Quincy cries and screams for attention in her crib, is heart-rending. Louise begs Bernard to stay, grabbing his leg, refusing to let go.
She can’t go through that again, she decides,and makes him leave,crushing Quincy’s brief reunion. Quincy wants to go with him, but he refuses to take her.
Years pass, and Quincy’s hopes for a promising future are dashed. She’s at Louise’s beck and call most of the time. Her lack of confidence and conviction are painfully apparent during her interview with the rattled interim principal (Benjamin Howes).
When she’s asked to make a brief speech accepting her late father’s award, she anguishes over it. Louise refuses to attend.
Despite her friend’s encouraging her to attend the prestigious conference, calling it an opportunity, and try on a dress and makeup, she’s hesitant. Quincy is at a crossroads. Will she break free from her suppressed lifestyle?
BOX INFO: World premiere of one-act, 90-minute dance-theater, conceived by Susan Misner and Jonathan Bernstein, presented by American Repertory Theater through April 27, at Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. For more information and tickets, call 617-547-8300 or visit AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.