Friday, October 23, 2009


First, let's get one thing straight. "Contact" is not an adaptation of the tedious Jodie Foster SF flick. It's Susan Stroman and John Weidman's Tony Award-winning "dance play" from Y2K. As the clunky phrase implies, there's much dance and little dialogue and zero lyrics to the music. Evidently, NYC theater people had an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument about whether or not it really was a musical, so they decided to call it a "dance play."

Folks, they should've called it a sex play. It's "Contact" in the sense of sexual contact. That's fine by me, but I don't want to dance around it. The show is dripping with sex. It's the kind of thing that made Oliver Cromwell close down the theaters.

The first number is "Swinging." It's a riff on Fragonard's 1767 painting, "The Swing." The scene: Once upon a time in France, there's a lady on a swing and two upper class dudes hanging out with her having a picnic. How arty. My friend the Internet says the painting is loaded with sexual symbolism. "Contact" unpacks that symbolism, and if I make it any clearer I'll have to talk dirty. In terms of staging, there's an actual giggling lady on an actual swing. When the one dude goes to get wine, she has acrobatic sexual dalliances with the other dude. It's sorta like a circus act with implied bumps and grinds. The original swingers. It's as deep as a Pepe LePew cartoon. And as much fun.

The second bit is another Silly Symphony. The scene: NYC in the 1950s. A low-level gangster (James Clarke) takes his wife (Nadine Isenegger) out to a buffet-style Italian restaurant for a night of dining and verbal abuse. He tells her, "Just sit there. Don't talk to the waiter; don't flirt with the busboy; don't you fucking move." He makes periodic feeding trips to the serving line. Whenever he's offstage, his wife launches into increasingly steamy dance sequences. In the final Fellini-esque number, she jumps in the head waiter's convertible and zooms down the road to do the deed. She returns in time to get slapped by her husband and -- after a hilarious bit where the waiters play three card monte with his 45 automatic -- she shoots him. But it was all in her head: a pathetic, Lucille Ball fantasy of freedom. She offers him a rose; he throws it on the floor. She accepts more verbal abuse and goes on with her lousy real life.

The final vignette: NYC in Y2K. Various locations. Michael (Fletcher McTaggart), a lone wolf filmmaker, drunkenly accepts a Clio award for yet another sell-out commercial. He returns to his Manhattan flat to do himself in. The answering machine keeps interrupting him. He winds up at a swing dancing club (a big fad back in Y2K) where he starts chasing The Girl in the Yellow Dress (Shannon Lewis). House rules: getting the girl means dancing with her. Sadly, the dude can't dance. To make it worse, the Swing Dancers intimidate him like rejects from the Jets and Sharks. But you know how it works in these things: Michael magically turns into a great dancer as a pure act of will. (Hey, who needs lessons?) He gets the girl! Then it all melts away. Turns out, the night of swinging was all in Michael's head. In reality, he's hanging by a rope -- but miraculously manages to save himself. In the end, he makes a human connection with the woman in the floor below who's always bitching about his loud noise.

Tomé Cousin is the director and choreographer. A high level of difficulty, but he made it look easy. As the piece is a hybrid "dance play," the Asolo Rep teamed up with Sarasota Ballet to pull if off. Along with the Asolo actors, the production featured full-time ballet dancers Rania Charalmbidou, Rita Duclos, Kate Honea, Logan Learned, Octavio Martin, Ricardo Rhodes and Tracey Tucci. They also make it look easy. And all look like they're having a great time.

I did too. I have a few minor beefs, mostly on the level of bits of business. Did we need the dude with his apron around his ankles in the second bit? Would a busboy bust a gangster's balls -- even a minor gangster? My only major criticism: using the "It was all in your mind" gag twice. But on the whole, I loved it.

To me, Contact functioned as a live action, flesh-and blood cartoon. Since I am a cartoonist, that's no insult. Cartoons and dance have a lot in common. You don't need a lot of yatta-yatta-yatta. The best cartoons are about the movement of bodies in space.

More importantly, motion is mind made physical. Cartoonist know that too. The rage of the Bull in Bully for Bugs. The Wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood turning straight as an arrow at the sight of his desire. Stimpy's psychotic insanity in"Sven Hoek."

Movement is an expression of desire -- and its frustration and fulfillment. Movement is character, in other words. As every cartoonist knows, how you move is who you are.
If you can create character with as few words as possible, so much the better.

Contact does just that. It's filled with dance, but no dance for dance's sake. All the motion on stage serves the creation of character. A play of few words.

That's all it needed.

Through Nov.
An Asolo Rep production
in collaboration with Sarasota Ballet
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

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