If relationships can be traced in the landscape of two joined bodies, then the two plays in Pas De Deux explore those landscapes with an honesty that is both mesmerizing and, at times, disturbing to watch. From the opening moment, when Emily Townley and Jens Rasmussen explode onto the stage in a violent wrestling match, grabbing onto each other’s flesh, you know this will be a no-holds barred evening in theatre.
Both plays deal with the intimate relationships of two people shown through a physicalized theatre style that borrows from dance, play, stage combat and yes, well, sex. The actors all seem comfortable in their bodies and are skillful enough to throw themselves into all the physical techniques and rhythms that these shows demand
However, that’s where the similarities end. The plays have two very different energies and arcs indeed.
Skin Tight, written by Gary Henderson, feels like a very old play – not old as in old-fashioned but old as in wise and well lived. It takes the audience on a journey through a relationship that, one discovers, has lasted a lifetime between a man and a woman. As we listen in on their conversation, they reveal these are two people who know everything about the other, what turns them on and what breaks them up, and the characters Elizabeth and Tom don’t hold back from using both extremes of communication.
The “truth” about their relationship unfolds slowly. We learn in bits and pieces that they have grown up together, known each other since childhood, that they have lived on a farm, that they’ve lost the farm, and had a daughter together who is now grown up. Imbedded in the story is a dark mystery, something powerful that threatens to tear them apart, and when the truth finally breaks open, it is heartbreaking indeed.
Their world is defined by a raked rectangle covered in what looks like emerald grass. The actors sprawl on this barefoot and so close to the audience in Studio Theater’s Second Stage that if you look up with them you can imagine also lying on a meadow sharing an enormous sky. In this “field” sits an old abandoned bathtub.
Set designer JD Madsen has also chosen to feature a simple rectangle in 2-2 Tango, but here the rectangle is sunken slightly. The floor is parquet and serves as a dance floor in a dance club, someone’s living room space, and an unidentified urban street. Two windows of plexiglass are at times lit from behind for a bit of silhouette work or pulse with colored lights to indicate a fast-paced urban world.
2-2 Tango feels young, edgy, a little cynical. The play traces an impulsive rollercoaster ride from hookup to break up of two young men.
The language of these two plays also differs greatly. In Skin Tight, Henderson is working through what is a memory play and has chosen to have the characters indulge in long monologues that lift off from prosaic dialogue into almost poetic flight. Actors Emily Townley and Jens Rasmussen only occasionally exhibit a bit of strain in a few awkward, self-conscious passages. For the most part their voices rise and fall in well-synced murmuring, an undulating stream-of-consciousness sharing.
In 2-2 Tango, playwright Daniel MacIvor has created a script marked by terse phrases, delivered in rapid-fire succession that are sometimes repeated simultaneously such as this in staccato, “This is a dance. This is an independ-dance!” The play is arranged in cropped scenelets, each with a different structure and rhythm – much like a piece of contemporary music. Alex Mills and Jon Hudson Odom never miss a beat of this demanding “score.”
The performances throughout the evening are outstanding, especially in the physical realm. Townley has a strong and generous physique that she uses to great advantage in portraying the character of Elizabeth, a woman of earthy and aggressively animal appetites. The way her bare legs plant themselves as she walks reminds me of the great roles and physicalizations of actress Colleen Dewhurst – say as Josie in Moon for the Misbegotten.
Jens Rasmussen with his reedy physique seems at first no match for this feisty woman, so full of life and longings, but as they roll around together, fight, and make up, we see an extraordinary couple grappling together through whatever life dishes them, and learn that, no matter what, they will stay in the ring. There is one scene that starts like a modern interpretation of the famous eating scene in the film Tom Jones where these two actors establish their two characters by eating apples – she digging her teeth in deeply to the juicy flesh, he paring away neat slices with a knife. But its lusty humor turns to something both chilling and thrilling when she covers the sharp knife with her mouth and Tom steers her around the floor by turning the sharp blade.
Alex Mills is an actor who we’ve come to expect to deliver enormous range and control in his physicality, and in 2-2 Tango he doesn’t disappoint. Mostly known for his silent work affiliated with Synetic Theatre Company, he has stepped into some notable speaking roles recently. But this was my first time hearing his voice, and it was an experience close to what it must have been like in Hollywood emerging from the silent film age with the advent of talkies. And I am pleased to report that Mills has made the transition with more grace and vocal abilities than many of Hollywood’s silent screen stars. Moreover, he is a fearless performer – from his whiplash-like isolations and erotic gyrations to the quixotic changes of emotions and drilling dialogue – and wows us throughout the show.
Mills and Jon Hudson Odom are well-paired indeed. Odom matches Mills in his lithe, expressive body, and he slams words across the space at Mills who bats them back as in a tennis match. Odom expresses well the terror of a man more comfortable in a dance club than sitting chatting in his own home. His portrayal is both humorous and sympathetic.
Pas De Deux
Closes May 19, 2013
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
1 hour, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Frankly, in this play, I wish their characters had had more guts than the actors demonstrated playing them. Of course, there were powerful universal truths in the expression of relationships (straight or gay, young or old) about stages of attraction, awkward individual rules of undressing, lust, boredom, restlessness, whining, and desiring to wound. One of my favorite scenes in MacIvor’s play is when these two men, who’ve barely just met, imagine all the things that might go wrong to upend their relationship and, in quick-by-numbers fashion, the two men act these out. It’s riotously funny and wincingly familiar.
But beneath the bravado poses and cool dance pick-up moves, we get to see glimpses of these two men as vulnerable, lonely, and hungry to launch themselves in a more satisfying relationship. Would that the play had risked more in this direction.
2-2 Tango skirts away from the depth and scary places Skin Tight eventually goes to and, as such, risks being vastly entertaining but finally just clever.
Directors Johanna Greuenhut (Skin Tight) and Eric Ruffin (2-2 Tango) and choreographer Nancy Bannon have developed wonderful trust in their small ensembles. They’ve brought out to varying degrees in their respective plays the baring of souls. In Skin Tight, the play actually calls for one character to undress fully. For some people, this vulnerable display of an aging body will seem a natural extension of the final situation in the play. For others, the nudity will shock or distract them from even hearing the final scene.
In realty, to all intent and purposes, the performers have been baring themselves to us all evening in painfully honest and human ways. The final image of the evening has young Dolan-Sandrino holding up a tray of watermelon slices to the audience as if to ask us, are we going to dig in and suck life’s juices, however messy? This moment shows how theatre, at its best, holds the mirror up and passes the choice to us.
Pas De Deux: Skin Tight by Gary Henderson . Directed by Johanna Gruenhut . 2-2 Tango by Daniel MacIvor . Directed by Eric Ruffin . Starring: Alex Mills (James, 2-2 Tango), Jon Odom (Jim, 2-2 Tango), Jens Rasmussen (Tom, Skin Tight), Emily Townley (Elizabeth, Skin Tight) . Directors and Designers: Johanna Gruenhut (Director, Skin Tight), Eric Ruffin (Director, 2-2 Tango), Nancy Bannon (Choreography), JD Madsen (Scenic Design), Jedidiah Roe (Lighting Design), Kelsey Hunt (Costume Design, Skin Tight), Rebecca DeLapp (Costume Design, 2-2 Tango), James Bigbee Garver (Sound Design) . Produced by Studio Teatre 2ndStage . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.