Monday, November 16, 2009

Isadora Duncan

When She Danced

by Martin Sherman

Nick Bowling has achieved another directing triumph with the TimeLine Theatre Company production of Martin Sherman's play, When She Danced, about one day in the later life of Isadora Duncan. The entire production was outstanding from the Belle Epoque set and exquisite musical selections to the cast and, of course, the direction.
The play is set over the course of a single day and as it opens Isadora (played by Jennifer Engstrom) is on the couch with her Russian husband Sergei Esenin (Patrick Mulvey). Throughout the play we are entertained by a large palette of different languages including Russian, Greek, Italian, and French in addition to English. This does not seem to make the play difficult to understand as it is very visual and the physical action is choreographed so well that it is always clear what is happening. Director Nick Bowling has crafted an immensely watchable and lavishly beautiful production. We meet Isadora in her 40s. She claims to be past her prime, but in Engstrom’s both regal and sensual performance, Duncan is every inch magnificent. Her Paris flat is in a state of exuberant and sophisticated chaos. Among the larger-than-life personalities coming and going: Duncan’s much younger Russian husband Sergei (who it seems knows only two languages, Russian and Love); Alexandros Eliopolos, an adoring 19-year-old Greek prodigy pianist (Alejandro Cordoba, a major talent who delivers a concert-level Chopin etude midway through the production); and Miss Hanna Belzer (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a Russian translator whose underwritten role nonetheless becomes an emotional cornerstone thanks to Brooks’ quietly galvanizing performance. The languages – Greek, Russian, English French and Italian – fly fast and thick with several in the ensemble never speaking a word of English. Bowling succeeds in making dialogue flow like music. And it’s to the cast’s great credit that even when the words are foreign, the meaning within them shines through. Miss Brooks is outstanding in her role as Miss Belzer who, in addition to providing translation and some of the comic relief, stands in as it were for the audience with her marvelous reactions to some of the activities with which she is surrounded. This play is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of communicating art, dance in particular, but you do get some perspective on what it meant for Isadora even though she does not dance a single step. Once again TimeLine Theatre Company has brought history and great art to the Chicago theater stage.

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