Small Magic

Turn up the footlights, we're puttin' on a show

Waiting for Monica Bill Barnes's Hollywood Endings to begin, Iredefine footlights. We who share a front-row, four-person couch at Dixon Place must move our feet with care, if at all, since lighting designer Jane Cox has duct-taped a row of little aluminum lamps to thefloor an inch or so from our toes.

Cramped, funky Dixon Place, the make-do gaudiness of Kelly Hanson's set and costumes, and Cox's intrepid lighting are a perfect fit for this small scale piece by Barnes, one of the wittiest young choreographers around. Although she can stir your heart as well as make you laugh, Hollywood Endings is essentially a charmingly outlandish revue in which nothing is predictable. I think particularly of the moment when a short, fringed silk curtain in one corner lifts to reveal a very young-looking high school girl (Lydia F. Martin) in a sparkly dress, sitting on a piano in front of a mirror ball. In an earnest, pretty little voice, with absolutely no flirtatious manner, she sings the 1926 hit made famous by Elvis, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Then the curtain rolls down, leaving, for a second or two, her skinny legs sticking outfrom under it.

Rather more histrionics come from the gawky would-be ballerina (Beth Bradford), whose tutu is held up by suspenders. She gets all swoony over her staggery dancing, which also includes sticking an index finger in her mouth and popping her cheek, Later she wanders tipsily through, spilling a champagne glass of fake snow. But when she falls with a thud, she drops all staginess: "Ouch!!" she says, and moans a bit. A little lamp descends to within a foot above her head; she coughs and wanders out disconsolately.

The evening's pomo vaudevillian comics are Deborah Lohse and Anna Smith, and they are a wonder. Tall Lohse has a rubber face and large, expressive eyes (Carol Burnett comes to mind), but she uses these with restraint and excellent timing. The smaller Smith pursues the role of a vinegary underdog whose dander is easily raised. Repetition plays a large part in skewing the routines Barnes has devised for them. In their first appearance, they jog (well, Smith sort of racewalks) around the perimeter of the small, three-sided performing area. Many times. Getting tireder. Occasionally resting on a piano bench. Getting faster and much tireder. When they stop, they pantomime at length terrible stitches in their sides and check their bodies for other ailments. "Why am I doing this?" is the gist of their reactions. Then, adding a movement or so at a time—approving, discarding—they build a little dance number. It hurts too. Whether wrangling over a bouquets of carnations, tangoing (sort of), or courting, their encounters are for the most part edgily courteous. Smith, wearing a red satin dress made for a much bigger woman, sticks her face close to an embarrassed Lohse and belts a Patsy Cline song. No matter where Lohse turns, Smith is in front of her. Eventually they sing the song together, and as strings of colored bulbs glow overhead and tiny points of light glitter on the fringed-drape backdrop and red light suffuses the scene, everyone joins in a finale.

Barnes herself has two numbers, first in a too big tailcoat, looking like the resident magician, and then in a longer, more fashionable black coat over pants. She is a kind of conjuror, pulling movement out of her small strong body as if this were a rabbit-hat deal, but without fanfare. Her idiosyncratic style juxtaposes small, sudden tics of movement to lavish ones. She hesitates, jitters; she has moments of composure in which she seems to take stock of what she's done or is about to do. In the second solo, performed to Schubert, she's constantly startling, whether sawing doggedly at the floor with the side of her hand, shaking her head over and over, or leaping low and wide in a circle, one hand on the floor, sweeping the fallen "snow" as she goes. Suddenly there's a handkerchief in her hand (Where did that come from??). And another. I can't take my eyes off her—not just because she's a beauty and her actions are compelling, but because, within the silky dancing and the curious gestures, I see her thinking, sense her feeling.

Barnes has used her considerable skill as a choreographer to make a piece that looks charmingly rickety, beautifully tawdry, and profoundly good-hearted. Hollywood Endings may have been a stop-gap work. When construction on Dixon Place's new downtown building as is completed, her new full-length Limelight will inaugurate its first season. Can you wait?

 
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