Anna (Shannon Campbell) shares an intimate moment with Pale (Christopher Dingle), the grieving brother of her deceased flatmate.
Anna (Shannon Campbell) shares an intimate moment with Pale (Christopher Dingle), the grieving brother of her deceased flatmate.Photo by Matthew Toles
“He was a punk, she did ballet. What more can I say?” Yes, Avril Lavigne hit the love-story stereotype on the nose with “Sk8er Boi.” But the Undergraduate Theater Society’s (UTS) play about a dancer falling for an angry, substance-abusing man actually does have more to say.
“Burn This,” UTS’s latest production, directed by Mary Hubert, portrays the lives of dancer-choreographer Anna (a vividly emotional Shannon Campbell) and her friend Larry (Parker Kennedy) as they grieve the deaths of their third flatmate, Robbie, and his boyfriend, Dom, in a boating accident.
Anna has always lived a safe life in her Manhattan flat, dating Burton (Dalton Broback), her well-meaning but uninspiring boyfriend, and dancing in other people’s productions instead of choreographing her own. Then Robbie’s brother Pale (a luminously intense Christopher Dingle) crashes through her door at 5 a.m., engulfing her safe world in a passion that ignites everything around her.
Love emerging from despair may sound similar to the cliche lyrics of “Sk8r Boi,” but playwright Lanford Wilson’s fast-paced, emotionally-complex dialogue and the brilliant performances on the part of Campbell and Dingle keep the production from feeling old hat.
Anna’s struggle to find her own movements on the dance floor — she says she even walks in the style of Charlie, her previous choreographer — mirrors her inability to take responsibility for her relationships and career.
Though Campbell’s acting is accomplished, the choreography itself fails to show a metamorphosis from Charlie’s style of dancing into something unique to Anna. Her joy, sorrow and inspiration are visible as she creates her own pieces and falls for Pale, but any changes in the steps themselves are almost imperceptible. The audience must accept Larry’s declarations of Anna’s talent as proof.
Where the choreography flounders, Campbell and Dingle’s interactions as Anna and Pale excel. Anna is comfortable with her rich, screenwriter boyfriend and maybe “if he asked one more time,” she’d finally agree to marry him. Angry, wounded, and sensitive, Pale yanks Anna out of her comfort zone and into a place so raw it scares her.
The two leads adeptly navigate the spaces between drunken monologues about the perils of parking in the city and quietly vulnerable moments of physicality alike. Interactions between Anna and Burton, and conversations with Larry are believable and often humorous, but fall short in comparison to the vast array of layered emotions Campbell and Dingle bring to their scenes.
The set is neat and purposely spartan, both as a rehearsal space within the story’s context and a stage in Hutchinson Hall; it is rich in symbolism and provides more space to dance. As Anna’s relationship and the play progress, the space becomes more cluttered, filled with baggage physical and otherwise.
Though the sparse set serves a purpose, the pauses between some scenes — supposedly meant to show the passing of time — were often long enough that the audience was left hoping for a slightly more interesting backdrop.
Throughout the production, the musical accompaniment varies, but myriad covers of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” dominate the soundtrack. Though the music does overemphasize what should be implied symbolism, the covers vary enough to hold their individual value. When coupled with the play’s title, the soundtrack highlights Anna and Pale’s precarious tightrope walk between being on fire and burning alive.
“Burn This” runs through Feb. 3 at the Cabaret Theater in Hutchinson Hall.
The verdict: Amid flying sparks, “Burn This” artfully dodges cliches and gives an explosive performance.
Reach reporter Samantha Leeds at email@example.com. Twitter: @SamanthaJLeeds
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