Theater review: 'Dancing Lessons,' a play about autism, dares to face change

Fred Hawson

Posted at Aug 22 2019 11:38 AM

Twin Bill had been choosing to stage plays with dark, taboo, or similarly sobering subject matter since they began as a theater production company in 2012.

"Dog Sees God" was about bullying and depression. "Suicide Incorporated" was about suicide. "My Name is Asher Lev" was about conflict between artistry and religion. "Wit" was about cancer.

This new play of theirs, Mark St. Germain's "Dancing Lessons," may have lightened up a little but it still tackles another serious topic -- autism.

Ever Montgomery is a college professor previously diagnosed to have Asperger's Syndrome, on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Ever since childhood, he had suffered an irrational fear of being touched, even by his own mother.

Senga Quinn is a dancer on Broadway who was sidelined by a serious knee injury that necessitated her to wear a leg brace. When Ever was invited to attend an important dinner-dance party, he decides to seek Senga's help to teach him how to dance.

Jill Pena and Randy Villarama as Senga and Ever, respectively. Jaypee Maristaza, from the Twin Bill Facebook page

This is a play about going outside your comfort zone and daring to face change. Ever Montgomery had been living his same humdrum day-to-day existence with zero social intimacy since his childhood. But now, forced to attend a social gathering, Ever was faced with the daunting challenge of conquering his biggest fears. And since it involved social interaction, he knew he could not do it himself.

Randy Villarama went beyond all those minor roles I had seen him in before to inhabit this especially demanding role. He kept in character the whole time, from his empty gaze which looked beyond Senga to those repetitive nervous twitches in his hand, his constant fixing of his belt buckle, and his mile-a-minute enumerations of complex statistics. His initial lousy attempts to move to a Rihanna song were hilarious. His successful attempts to break through his constricting psychiatric shackles were uplifting.

For Senga, at first, teaching Ever to dance was just an easy way to earn a thousand dollars. She was brash and angry at the world, wallowing in her own self-pity because of her injury in one leg. She was an alcoholic and a junkie on pain meds. Later, their relationship evolved to things other than dancing. Senga essentially transitioned into becoming a therapist to draw Ever out of the fears that imprisoned him psychologically. In the same breath that she was healing him, she was being healed herself.

I had heard the name of Jill Pena in the ensemble of several plays I had watched before. But honestly, this is the first time that I am solidly putting a face to her name. As Senga, Pena fluidly went through her character's arc with sensitivity and warmth, subtly breaking down the defenses she walled herself behind since her debilitation. She had to change first before Ever could change. It was her own change that led to Ever's change. Pena had us believing that her Senga could have such a significant effect on a man like Ever.

(Left to right) Marielle Joy Baylocon, Villarama, Pena, and Al Bernard Garcia at their curtain call. Photo from author

The set design of Kayla Teodoro was a single circular raised platform with a ramp that led to a solid door on the backdrop, on which key points were being flashed. The all-wood set pieces with the lighting design of Joseph Matheu imparted a sense of warmth.

The dancing of Marielle Joy Baylocon and Al Bernard Garcia, as choreographed by JM Cabling, reflected the exhilaration of Senga and Ever's spirits beyond their physical limitations. Kudos to Twin Bill co-founder and artistic director Francis Matheu for leading his team through this fulfilling emotional and psychological journey.

"Dancing Lessons" runs until August 24, with only one show a day at 8 a.m. Each show runs for only one and a half hours, with no intermission. Venue is at the Power Mac Center Spotlight, Level 2 Circuit Lane, Circuit Makati. Ticket prices are at P1,550 and P750.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."