Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Watching My Hair Grow"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"Watching My Hair Grow"

Written and Performed by Jeff Shade
Directed by Brian Feehan

Set Design by Karl Brake
Photography & Multimedia Design by Sarah Higgins
Sound Design by James Capenos
Lighting Design & Stage Manager Andrew Ostrowski

Even standing stock still on stage, Jeff Shade dances. He has written the largely autobiographical "Life Adventures of Petey from Pittsburgh" and for the slightly less than ninety minutes it takes him to perform it he is, singing or speaking or miming, slipping effortlessly through time and into characters --- Jeff Shade is, always, a dancer.

You may have seen him on the big stage of the Colonial Theatre during the long run of "Chicago" here in Boston doing the Choreography of Bob Fosse that he seems born to perform. But the intense, concentrated life adventures of Petey is a very different experience. Shade hasn't given himself a series of bravura set-pieces, but integrated every step and every pause and every movement into a flowing whole. The narration and dialog is mostly rhymed, often sung, eloquently spare and expressive, with flashes of wit and self-satire and studded with commenting throw-aways. And yet these poetically sincere rhythmic lines always accompany the dance, as the piano accompanies an aria --- supporting and emphasizing, never upstaging the main event, which is Jeff Shade in motion.

Whipping into a cheap red wig and sucking a sour cigarette Shade becomes Madame Rose, whose dancing class gave little Petey (age 3) the chance to Be things. He mimes the dancing mistress coaxing steps and then, as she disappears through one door, he reappears through another to be that child, miming his joyful lessons, his becoming.

Whipped into a wimple with a pointer for a riding-crop he marches, metronomically, as a martinet nun who contemptuously declares "God despises you, Petey, and I can say this because I am married to His only Son!"

The story is rich, and bursting with detail. There is Petey's consternation when his hard-drinking father ("He overindulged in the Body and the Blood --- well, actually in pretzels and beer"), a gruff Little League coach, ignored Petey's dream of becoming a baseball hero. There is Petey's friend, "Slim" --- the baton with which he wins a college scholarship --- in twirling. Shade's dazzling routine with the baton is unimaginably intricate and non-stop, and all the more impressive because through it all his narrative never stops.

But Petey's got to get himself out of Pittsburgh, and does so by donning his tap-shoes and shuffling off to New York to auditions and call-backs and actually dancing in a Radio City Music Hall show with The Rockettes, and finding a tall, slim, blond Life Partner named Brent.

Shade never makes this story a gay tract, but that element is always there, more a subtext than surface. It edges the love/hate argument with his father, deeply underlines the litany of fellow dancers dead of AIDS, the break with a Life Partner who cannot understand.

But before all that is the moment when the Red-headed Dance-Captain Wife of the Great Man Choreographer asks "Can you do.....isolation?" ("I've been in isolation all my life!" Petey quips in a throw-away it takes minutes to digest.) Suddenly self-assured, Shade pulls on a pair of pure-white gloves and, talking the while, demonstrates the Fosse vocabulary as only this body can --- that lithe, slithery suppleness of movement the dancer coolly Watches taking place.

But, the Great Man Choreographer dead, the dancer's world shrinks in upon a nightmare of deaths and drugs and private demons no hospital doses of Prozak's pals fully assuage until, a still small voice at the bottom of it all says "Stand up and say 'No'." Back to dancing, Shade suggests that his Petey from Pittsburgh has managed to stop reliving past problems and to dance in the Now. It is a last-minute escape from suicide that makes a simple, courageous climax to this densely moving story.

Director Brian Feehan has shaped and sandpapered and polished every nuance and motion in this story till there is not an ounce or an instant that doesn't shine. Karl Brake and Sarah Higgins have provided a set and projected images that continually surprise, and Andrew Ostrowski's punctuating blackouts and lightning-slashes make simple costume-changes into quick-cuts faster than film can. Everyone has worked to make their facets of the gem add to the total effect.

"Watching My Hair Grow" will be in the BCA's Black Box Theatre for only one week while Jeff Shade takes time out from touring "Chicago" --- but that certainly won't be the end of it. It's much too important an event to stop here.

( a k a larry stark)

"Watching My Hair Grow" (till 9 August)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide