Susan Stroman's 'Contact'

by Catherine Pawlick

February 16, 2003 -- The Curran Theater, San Francisco

The Lincoln Center Theatre closed its San Francisco run of “Contact” Sunday afternoon with the last of its two-hour performances. The show features a cast of performers with formidable credits who provide stimulus for the eyes as well as the mind.

"Contact" is a three-act entertainment feast. One is tempted to call it a musical, but there isn’t any singing, nor is there, at least for this tour, a live orchestra. The bulk of the performance centers around acting with minimal speech, and a mixture of ballet, swing, salsa and ballroom dance, with plenty of acrobatics tossed in. If you're not a dance fan, the plots of the three vignettes present plenty of room for psychological analysis. If you are a dance fan, these performers are amazing to watch.

In Act One, the characters from Fragonard’s famous painting, "The Swing" come to life on stage. After a brief display of the painting itself, the curtain opens to a servant pushing a young girl in a swing while she flirts with an aristocrat during an afternoon picnic.

The choreography centers around the giant swing hung from the stage rafters. The artistocrat is clearly attracted to the young girl dressed in a pink gown circa 1767, but she clearly isn't too serious about him. The number of acrobatics performed on and around this swing are impressive, and much of this takes place when the girl tricks the aristocrat into leaving the area in search of more wine.

Left alone with the servant, the two enjoy a flirty escapade centered around the motion of the swing. The servant, who was not recognized separately in the program, performed a number of acrobatics on the moving swing, sometimes alone, sometimes with the girl still on it. Of note was a handstand performed holding onto the ropes of the swing, the girl seated below him, all three elements in motion. The scene is sprinkled with sexual innuendo and if the acrobatics don’t hold your attention, the innuendo will.

Act Two, "Did You Move?" moves us closer to the future, to an Italian restaurant in New York, circa 1950. The clientele include an Asian couple and a pregnant wife with her husband. The center of attention, however, is the wife of a mafia-type husband who has nary a kind gesture or word for her. In search of an ever-evasive dinner roll, he alternates repeated demands to the meandering wai staff, and departures from the table. It is during these departures that his wife departs into a world of her own, dancing among the tables, invisible to the other diners but expressing a soulful joyfulness that her husband does not foster. Each time her husband returns to the table she is jarringly jerked back to reality, and to her chair, becoming once again the silent compliant wife.

His question at every return -- "Did you move?" -- reflects the irony of her situation. Her position as wife -- and her life -- have not changed, but her inner world allows her the freedom to live, move, and explore at will. Subsequent "fantasy dances" -- including a brief fling with the headwaiter -- develop, going so far as to involve shooting her husband. It is at this point that fantasy merges with reality, but to say more would give away some of the piece's cleverness.

The female lead on Sunday afternoon was not called out specifically in the program, but her expressive face and beautiful lines offered a light grace and strong movements that perfectly matched her character's predicament.

Likewise the headwaiter did a nice job of partnering her with enthusiasm, even if the motivation for his role in this fantasy wasn’t clear. Perhaps the simple fact that he -- as opposed to her husband -- seemed to enjoy her company was motivation enough.

Act Three is "Contact," the namesake of the performance and an apt descriptor for a New York ad executive’s struggle to connect with someone in his life.

Mr. Michael Wiley, played by Daniel McDonald, could not be more miserable with his success. The scene opens on his drunken acceptance speech for best 10-second TV spot. He returns home from the black tie event to a host of phone messages from his downstairs neighbor complaining about the noise. After several suicide attempts the man heads out to a nearby bar, where the action, and his struggle for "contact" begins.

Colleen Dunn played the Girl in a Yellow Dress. Known also for her role in the recent Dannon Yogurt commercial involving the faux french maid, Dunn is a tall, thin, blonde, hyper flexible with a keen sense of movement. She plays the unreachable, sexy Girl in a Yellow Dress whose attention Mr. Wiley struggles to attract.A simple walk across the bar room floor is enough to have fellow bar patrons drooling, and the men in the place compete for her attentions. One cannot imagine anyone else playing this role as effectively as Dunn. From her catlike stroll to the silent knowing glances she gives to the other performers, she creates the character perfectly, and you leave the theater either wanting her … or wanting to be her.

McDonald does an excellent job portraying the inner conflict of Mr. Wiley, and his challenge to overcome his fear and approach the Girl. His unhappiness at life and his yearning for the Girl are both believable and when the two finally dance, sparks fly.

If you missed "Contact," it is a performance worth seeing during the troup's next San Francisco tour, which will hopefully be soon. And those who have already seen it might be tempted to go back for seconds.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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