by Hugh Hunter
Allens Lane Theater completes its 2013-14 season with a memorable revival of “When She Danced” (1985) by Martin Sherman. Directed by Maurizio Giammarco, it is a compelling vision of the legendary American dancer, Isadora Duncan.
Sometimes called “the mother of modern dance,” Isadora was a pioneering woman in every way. Abandoning America for Europe in 1900, she went on to develop a new dance vocabulary. She discarded classical ballet, taking inspiration in normal bodily movements and in the stylized toga-draped forms she saw on Grecian vases.
In most of his plays, Martin Sherman has written about persecuted people, most notably “Bent” (1979), which concerns gay Holocaust victims. While Isadora’s life was tragically scarred by the accidental drowning deaths of her two children, “When She Danced” is not a victim story.
Set in her apartment in 1923, a middle-aged Isadora sells furniture to pay bills. She struggles to find a patron so she can perform again and build a dance school for children. Director Giammarco, a playwright and professor at Temple University, does his best to coax a Chekhovian comic-tragic feel into Sherman’s undramatic script.
Susan Chase is perfectly cast as Isadora. Chase began her career as a ballet dancer, and through her we see Duncan merge art with life. All of Chase’s stage movement seems unconsciously expressive. And in a few special moments we see Duncan dance in the shadowy background as friends reminisce about her great performances.
Aging Isadora is the leader of a tattered band of lost souls. Sergei Esenin (Glenn Kraft), Isadora’s young husband, is a drunken Bolshevik poet. Sergei speaks no English, but Kraft creates a believable character out of this chaotic lover. In real life Sergei later committed suicide.
Comically, Isadora cannot talk to her own husband — language is overrated, she tells us — and Russian Hanna Belzer (Sharon Sigal) serves as Isadora’s translator. Hanna was enraptured by Duncan’s performances 18 years earlier. However, it bothers Hanna to see Isadora scraping the bottom of the barrel as she surrounds herself with an entourage of farcical characters. They include Alexandros (Thomas Braun), a gay piano prodigy, and Luciano (Elliott Rotman), an Italian who masquerades as a person of influence.
You have to love the idea of Isadora Duncan. The image of the bohemian artist often seems fraudulent, but Isadora’s driven world of private passion rings true. You do not pity her. Instead, you feel oddly uplifted as you watch her do battle against the play’s unspoken nemesis: death and oblivion.
Allens Lane is located at Allens Lane and McCallum Street. “When She Danced” will run through May 18. Reservations at 215-248-0546 or www.allenslane.org.