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Death of a Prom Queen

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WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH MARY?

Xsight! Performance Group

at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University

October 9 and 10

SHAWN COYLE & DANCERS

at Cypher Inc.

October 9

Tim O'Slynne has said he didn't really want to be a modern dancer; he would have liked to have been a ballet or jazz dancer, but he knew that only modern dance would allow him to create his work. And "work" is the only possible word for O'Slynne's combinations of dance, theater, stand-up comedy, and campy story telling. O'Slynne and the Xsight! Performance Group have done a "dance" version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and a venomous attack on the Catholic church called The Pope's Toe, but their best work is still this southern-gothic murder mystery.

What Are We Going to Do With Mary? is centered squarely on O'Slynne. He plays Preston Carlisle, the rich boy in the tiny Texas town of Forney. (O'Slynne grew up in Forney, Texas, and much of the dance is reportedly taken directly from his boyhood.) Life in Forney has convinced Carlisle that what matters is "who is sticking what into whom, and who is enjoying it." Carlisle wants the most popular girl in high school, Mary (Mary Ward), who finally marries him for his money. But Mary is still attracted to the most popular boy in high school, Driver Goodbody (Brian Jeffery). This triangle leads to murder--in one of many plot twists, Mary persuades Carlisle to murder Goodbody, but Mary is killed instead.

The plot emerges from Carlisle's stories. O'Slynne is the kind of raconteur who eases a listener in. He tells about how to impress a girl: polish the backs of your shoes all the way down to the heel, because with all the cow shit and chicken shit in Forney clean shoes are impressive. When he walks out of the room, Carlisle wants a girl to think, "That Preston Carlisle is sure neat." At the same time O'Slynne is an abrasive stand-up comic who heckles his audience, telling them when to clap and when not to laugh. O'Slynne switches between the mad Preston Carlisle, the raconteur Carlisle, and the stand-up comic with a charm that, he reminds the audience, is part of southern politeness.

Carlisle's monologues drive the plot forward, but the dance sequences express the feelings he's too driven to understand. As Carlisle talks about Mary, she dances; Ward captures perfectly Mary's girlish grace as well as her natural, animal sexuality. Jeffery also captures perfectly the character of Carlisle's rival, the "kind of boy who never danced off the beat." Goodbody enters looking fresh and wholesome in a letter jacket; three girls (Shannon Raglin, Ward, and Beth Wild) fight for his attention. When Goodbody takes off his jacket, he dances so simply and so well that we easily see why the girls fight over him.

The first act supplies astonishingly clear motivations. Carlisle's monologues tell us what to look for in the dance. Knowing what to look for, we read every moment of Mary's and Goodbody's dances as if they were written in a book. A dinner party scene that includes the town's eccentric inhabitants, introducing the rest of the dancers (Ginger Farley, Brian Frette, Matt Glavin, Laurie Goux, and Rebecca Rossen), is hilarious and precise.

The second act is the problem. After Mary is killed, Carlisle falls into a dementia in which he's tormented by hallucinations of Mary having sex with Goodbody; he's also hounded by images of suspicious neighbors. As Carlisle loses his grip, the narrative loses its grip too. The movements, so lucid in the first act, seem less motivated--they're just steps. Carlisle delivers fewer monologues, and the audience is given fewer clues to understand the action.

Carlisle's dementia has a lurid sexual quality. The costumes change completely--Goodbody dresses like a dream from a leather bar; Mary has the wild hair of a Fury; the townspeople wear tattered, sexy versions of their everyday clothes. Most of the second act seems to take place in a hellish leather bar, a place that seems to be part of a much later story than this one about Forney.

The second act ends oddly, too. Carlisle shoots a character called the Crazy Man, then Carlisle, Goodbody, and the Crazy Man all fall to the floor. It suggests that all three characters are parts of Carlisle's splintered personality, and that the action of the whole evening has been the result of Carlisle's dementia. Such a deus ex machina ending is unworthy of the rest of the work.

Much of the creativity of this group clearly comes from O'Slynne. His wild, campy energy gives the company its direction, but his love of excess can mean the work appeals only to the strong of heart. What Are We Going to Do With Mary? shows O'Slynne at his most charming, making it the most accessible of Xsight!'s long works.

Shawn Coyle mixes styles too, but without O'Slynne's wild abandon. Coyle studied dance at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, a school that emphasizes technique and has a strong jazz department. Coyle's dances reflect her training--she mixes dance styles freely but stays within convention.

Her Love in the Garden is an old-fashioned romantic duet set to Kitaro's highly colored new-age music and danced by Ceci Fano and Rene Cardoza. Dressed in white, they enter separately and run across the stage several times; when they find each other center stage, they retreat briefly in a swirl of pirouettes, then rejoin and swoop through the space with linked arms. Coyle uses mainly balletic moves--turns in attitude, complex lifts of the woman--mixed with an occasional modern dance move, such as a lift where the man simply turns the woman upside down for a moment. Cardoza and Fano dance enthusiastically, but Coyle has given them some movement beyond their capabilities.

Enthusiastic dancing is also a hallmark of Tunnel, in which seven dancers (Erica Bebiak, Cardoza, Fano, Kim Kohler, Dan Lantvit, Jenny Myers, and Nathan Lowe) in white unitards cavort in a Muppet-like wonderland created by Bert Leveille. A twisted papier-mache ladder rises like smoke from center stage; cute papier-mache monsters hang from its rungs. In front of the ladder is a six-foot-tall tunnel, like a huge Slinky covered with filmy cloth. Phantasmagorical landscapes in neon colors form the backdrop. Unfortunately the dancing does not inhabit this world but meanders through a long series of improvisations that always seem to end with the dancers sprawled on the floor.

In The Blood of Our Land Coyle connects with her dancers' enthusiasm and skill to make a fine dance. Set to a medium-tempo rock song performed live by the Watch Society, the dance has four women (Bebiak, Fano, Kohler, and Myers) dancing high-energy jazz. They alternate sections of unison movement with sections of eye-catching individualized movement. Coyle uses clear floor patterns of boxes and diagonals, adds quieter sections and a few postmodern movements for contrast, and generally creates a well-balanced dance. Her strong structures channel the pop energies of her dancers, permitting them to, in Madonna's words, express themselves.

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