OCTOBER 2019 | Volume 184
As much as I enjoyed this show, I find it very hard to review.
Mark St. Germain’s one-act odd-couple two-hander, set in New York, has a straightforward plot. Senga, a dancer, has been grounded by a severe leg injury. She stews in her apartment, feeling sorry for herself. Along comes Ever, a neighbour, offering her an exorbitant fee for an hour of dance lessons. She angrily resists, he weirdly persists, eventually she gives in and the two misfits bond in a sweet way.
The key is that Ever is autistic. His self-described Asperger’s comes with superb intelligence that has led him to become an award-winning ecoscience professor who lectures on global warming. A banquet at which he’ll receive an award is the occasion for which he needs to learn basic dance moves.
But his autism has also left him with extreme social awkwardness. He can’t bear to be touched, even to shake hands. He has difficulty understanding humour and the emotional effect his words have on others. He has to rehearse certain behaviours other people might take for granted—and not just dance. (In a charming sequence he shows Senga how he modeled his high school persona on John Hughes movie characters.) He speaks and moves in carefully calculated ways that initially strike Senga—and likely many audience members—as strange, mechanical, even creepy.
As their relationship progresses, Senga warms to him, helping Ever overcome some of his most severe phobias. Senga, too, becomes more open and vulnerable, revealing personal secrets, moderating her anger. The audience learns to care for them both and root for them to succeed. (Though I wish Ever’s climate change lecture on the courage to change wasn’t so on the nose.)
This Naked Goddess production, directed by Sarah Rodgers, features the company’s co-producers, Sandra Medeiros and Andrew Coghlan. In one way Medeiros has the tougher job: making Senga likeable. She’s so tied up in her anger and resentment from the start that it’s hard to care much about her, despite learning some of the difficult details of her background. The character and actor eventually come around, but (spoiler alert!) even when having sex, Medeiros’ Senga seems a little removed.
Ever’s character arc is clearer and more dramatic. His changes and his victory over himself are substantial. Coughlan does what appeared to me to be a wonderful job capturing Ever’s distinctive vocal and physical mannerisms, his severe discomfort and burning desire to be able to behave, in certain circumstances, more “normally.”
My theatre critic brain says fine performance. But what do I know about autism? Very little. Are Ever’s behaviours accurately depicted? Is Coughlan himself an actor on the autism spectrum or is he what Ever calls neurotypical? (His program bio offers no indication.) Does it matter if he’s autistic or not? Or, in 2019, should all autistic characters be played by autistic actors?The politics of the otherly abled are complicated. See the story in today’s Vancouver Sun about autistic people protesting a local walk for autism (https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/autistic-people-march-for-and-against-walk-for-autism-in-richmond).Dancing Lessons treats its autistic character with sympathy and humour, but is the portrayal appropriate? respectful? I’d love to hear the opinion of an autistic audience member.
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