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With a mugging, a shooting, and a near-stabbing in its first act, and urban riffs on Cinderella and The Princess and the Pea in its second, Dominic A. Taylor’s Wedding Dance certainly isn’t your typical romantic comedy. Yes, its protagonists meet cute, and they spar wittily for a while before deciding to hook up, but they do so with weapons drawn. There’s even a touch of grim when the evening turns Grimm: “Why does it not surprise me that my fairy godmother is handicapped?” mutters the put-upon heroine as she’s told to be home by midnight and handed glass slippers and a bus transfer.
Urban princes are a tad tougher than their fantasy counterparts, but there’s a sweetness to them nonetheless. That, at any rate, is the line Taylor’s pursuing in Wedding Dance as he introduces street thug Chuck and bookstore clerk Bessie and starts them two-stepping to unconventional romantic rhythms. His plot could be summed up as boy meets girl, boy mugs girl’s mother, boy gets head handed to him. But that wouldn’t really do justice to either the story or the wit with which it’s told.
Almost as soon as the lights come up on the six rearrangeable, slatted-wood sarcophagi with which designer Michael C. Stepowany represents various urban settings, hiphop rhythms begin fusing with gospel sentiments. Street rappers Chuck (Kevin Jiggetts) and Ab (J.J. Johnson) rip off a few rhymes about not having cash, then turn over their imaginary mike to a stammering homeless guy (David Lamont Wilson), who keens of wanting “two wings” to carry him skyward.
Enter wheelchair-bound Gayle (Willette Thompson) and daughter Bessie (Lakeisha Raquel Harrison), recently evicted from their home and trying on this new neighborhood for size. Like the homeless guy, Gayle’s thinking spiritually, looking for a miracle that will allow her to rise from her wheelchair and dance at a relative’s wedding. Bessie is protective and, like the rappers, worried about cash flow. When Chuck and Ab swipe her mom’s purse, Bessie comes at them with more gumption (and firepower) than they have reason to expect, at which point complications, not to mention hi-jinks, ensue.
If that were all the inspiration Taylor had up his authorial sleeve, Wedding Dance would be sitcom-simpleand more than a tad unsavory. But the playwright uses his second act to look at children’s myths and how they affect urban expectations, bringing a welcome bit of complexity to his observations. Story time in the children’s section at Bessie’s bookstore brings pimplike Princes Charming, cross-dressing wicked stepmoms, and a Caribbean-accented, Miss Cleo-ish fairy godmother to life. Stereotypes are skewered with enough cleverness to suggest that the ones you’ve seen in the first act need a bit of revisiting as well.
Now, how you feel about the redeemability of swains who club wheelchair-bound old ladies over the head and steal their disability payments is likely to color your reaction to the play’s conclusion, but the getting-there is original and briskly amusing in Jennifer L. Nelson’s quick-stepping production. Harrison makes Bessie a winningly erudite presence, whether praying on her mother’s behalf (“She casts bread on the waters when her stomach is growlin’”) or trading quips with Jiggetts’ relaxed, charming thug. Johnson’s inventive clowning (especially when Ab gets shot) takes some sting out of the play’s direst events. (The mugging takes place offstage, thank heaven, or the play would never recover.) Thompson makes Gayle refreshingly upbeat in the face of her disability, and Wilson does what he can as the play’s authorial conscience.
But none of it quite makes the thought of a relationship between mugger and muggee’s daughter emotionally palatablewhich may be why the author has constructed the play as a series of overlapping vignettes. In addition to the central romance, there are the stories the young men tell each other to pass the time, interrupted by the stories they tell each other to impress passers-by, interrupted by prayers, and songs, and fairy tales. Brisk and self-contained, these scene-sketches ultimately add up to pretty sprightly entertainment, even if the motivations and situations aren’t always entirely persuasive. Call them tricky choreography where a nicely executed pas de deux would be more satisfying. Still, they keep Wedding Dance tooling gracefully around the stage.
Having recently witnessed a Man of La Mancha of operatic proportions at the National Theater, local audiences can now catch a Cervantes sampler that’s at once broader and more intimate. An evening of comic interludes by one of the world’s first novelists, Gala Hispanic Theatre’s Cervantes: Maestro del Entremés is an amusing odditya portrait of the Spanish middle class circa 1616, rendered in vaudeville terms.
Strictly speaking, of course, we’re talking commedia dell’arte, but Hugo Medrano’s staging seems based as firmly in the Borscht Belt as it is in troubadour traditions. His comedians sport strapped-on mustaches, heroically amplified bosoms, and inflections not unlike the ones Fanny Brice affected when playing Baby Snooks. All of this feels entirely appropriate for skits with titles “El Viejo Celoso (The Jealous Old Man)” “El Rufián Viudo Llamado Trampagos (The Widowed Pimp)”that make them sound like burlesque sketches.
Designer Carrie Ballenger having converted the Warehouse Theater’s stage into the courtyard of a 17th-century inn, Medrano begins the evening with the last few lines of an Act 1 cliffhanger from what looks to be a pretty silly epic melodrama. Then he sends in the clowns, who set up painted backdrops as they leap into scenes that rely on broad stereotypes and silly sight gags. An unhappily married husband and wife seeking relief from “El Juez de los Divorcios (The Divorce Judge)” crane their necks and bob their heads like chickens as they recount marital complaints. A randy barber in “La Cueva de Salamanca (The Cave in Salamanca)” practically salivates when he and a slatternly maid lock eyes.
Cervantes was a keen observer of human nature, so there’s more to these characters than caricature, but not a lot more. Mostly, the sketches are just opportunities for buffoonery, and Gala’s cast attacks them with appropriate high spirits. CP