May 05--Playwright Stephen Sachs stuffs his sentimental script "Heart Song," playing through May 11 at Florida Repertory Theatre, with a wealth of womanly themes. Cultural fissures, maternal woes, grief and guilt surface as a daughter marks one year since her mother's death.
Sachs uses the device of women taking a dance class to explore culture, history and women in general. Carrie Lund, the anchor of Florida Rep's acting ensemble, caps a strong season as still-mourning New Yorker Rochelle. Lund moves seamlessly through the play's awkward set-up, wherein her Asian massage artist Tina (a plucky Jo Yang) suggests flamenco to unlock her flow.
"I don't need a masseuse. I need a plumber," Lund's character snaps in one of the script's many one-liners.
Sachs constructs "Heart Song" as a soul-baring sisterhood therapy session trapped in a dance class. Every woman in the audience will want to strap on castanets and stomp around in a flamenco studio by intermission.
Dance, more than anything, moves to center stage in director Robert Cacioppo's show. A multi-week rehearsal process taught each cast member to dance -- and dance with flair. Carolina Esparza choreographs the stirring flamenco sequences with an assist from Cindy-Lee Overton. Florida Rep cast locals as dance class members; "The Women of the Circle" keep time with scenes by clapping, tapping feet and even twirling about the stage.
Once Rochelle opens her heart, we dance. Enter Katarina de la Fuente (Michelle Damato), a mysterious gypsy pipe snake made for backed-up biorhythms. Damato, garbed in red and black, golden serpent arm band, shawl and a half-acre of faux tattoos, spouts lines like "Give me the wound of your true spirt. The dark cry of your soul." Damato brings grace to an imperious character that feels like little more than a plot device and walking, talking history lesson.
"Heart Song" entertains and informs, but rarely makes the heart sing. For all the talk of flow, sisterhood and soul, Sachs treats his female characters as neuroses-riddled problems looking for a solution. Abrupt transitions, often styled as word-soup confrontations, give the play a choppy, disconnected feel -- a far cry from the stylish staccato beat of flamenco.
Take the chance bus stop meeting between Lund's Rochelle and sassy cancer survivor Daloris (Patricia Idlette). Lund and Idlette create momentum even as the scene skips merrily through character back-story, religion and "the rapture of being alive." Clunky dialogue includes talk of "flamenco angels" and a rather frank discussion of flamenco's ability to generate sexual desires. Or, as Daloris puts it, "warm the honey pot."
A multi-cultural sisterhood forms after intermission as Rochelle, Daloris and Tina share sentiments, tapas and a spliff over wine. Lund, Idlette and Yang form a real bond on stage in one of the play's best, strongest scenes. Watching the trio giggle while pouring el vino tinto and exchanging confidences redeems the many missteps in "Heart Song."
Despite the script's speed bumps, the play's emotional moments shine, especially Rochelle's heartfelt admission she never truly knew her mother. Even when Sachs accelerates toward the finale with an awkward, abrupt confrontation and surprise revelation, the basic message about opening yourself up to love and change remains.
Cacioppo scouted "Heart Song" at L.A.'s Fountain Theatre. The Fort Myers production, in addition to last weekend's inaugural PlayLab, represents a commitment from Florida Rep to put new work on the stage. Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples stages its second New Works festival later this summer. Gwydion Suilebhan play "The Butcher," which had a reading last summer, will be produced in 2015. Regional theaters, which face less commercial pressure than Broadway, offer an important venue for playwrights to develop new work.
Ladies, start your flamenco engines and find a dance class. This one's for you. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.
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