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Flash Review 3, 3-26: "Frankie's Wedding"
Uncommonly Straight Dance-Theater from Lansner

By Diane Vivona
Copyright 2001 Diane Vivona

Dance and theater are in trouble. Audiences are so accustomed to looking at fragmented images, to split screens and jarring non-sequitors, that viewing something as a whole is becoming quaint and faintly historical. Gabrielle Lansner's production "Frankie's Wedding," which opened this weekend at Walkerspace, is based on Carson McCullers's distinctive 1946 text "The Member of the Wedding." Though McCullers's work was first published in 1946 as a novella, Tennessee Williams recommended, and subsequently fostered McCullers in, its reworking as theater. Lansner's reworking is different than that of McCullers/Williams. Hers relies on movement and image more than text. "Frankie's Wedding" is like taking a beautiful Sunday drive, for those of you who remember that experience. The view stretches to the horizon, filling your eyes, ears and mouth with the memory of landscapes past.

"Frankie's Wedding" opens in darkness with Frankie (Paula McGonagle) shouting contextual verbiage about the War, her brother's wedding and herself. The effect is abrupt and harsh, alerting us to the rough gravel to come. Frankie is a girl-woman torn by her feelings of love and loss. The two L-words come as a matched set in her life: In her short time on the planet she already knows seven people who have died, including her mother. Not surprisingly her reactions to life are a paradoxical mix of toughness and fragility. We love this character with all her prickly, honest turmoil. Quickly we get to know and understand the simple complexities of her life.

Lansner is a fine director. She magically creates dancers out of actors, and vice versa. This is not to belittle the talents of the performers -- they all hold their own -- but it is to commend Lansner for her fine attention to detail in movement. Several images stand out in particular.

Berenice (Frankie's nanny), John Henry (Frankie's younger cousin) and Frankie, played respectively by Vernice P. Miller, Rodney To and McGonagle, laugh loud and raucously, their backs to us, shaking with glee. Suddenly they turn, still and quiet. Gradually each character unfolds into his or her own movement theme and we get to know them: Bernice's hot groove, Frankie's innocent splendor, John Henry's spitfire wildness. Lansner is particularly adept at creating movement that speaks volumes of descriptive text.

Another strong moment occurs when Berenice teaches Frankie how to waltz. John Henry breaks through their embrace and, instead of pushing him away, they envelop him in a waltz for three. Revealed in the upper tier of Dean Taucher's imaginatively sparse set, the wedding couple also dances. For a moment, the two family units harmoniously coexist. Then the group of three break apart, waltzing solo as the couple continues in each other's arms. Instantly there is a redress in the balance of family.

With a crisp sense of humor intact, Lansner has highlighted Frankie's nemeses, the "girl club members," with a rap all their own. The two girls, played with relish by Danielle Fink and Genevieve Perrier, attack the space with the brisk preciousness of their club codes: six steps, turn, six steps, turn, line up with arms just so and hands here. These two speak the loss of innocence, proclaiming newly recognized differences and their subsequent disdain and intolerance of them. Here the movement direction is precise as well as broad, and we are able to laugh only because of the absurdly precocious terrors which come out of these sirens and mouths. As with all comic bullies, the after effect is as unsettling as it is revealing.

Although "Frankie's Wedding" runs just one hour, several images lingered beyond their shelf life and some movement sequences dragged to their own demise. Nevertheless, the performers held these moments with professional aplomb and, despite the glaze of the lens, I remained riveted. Miller, in the role of Berenice, has a warmth that radiates through a London fog and Perrier, appropriate to her role, is the epitome of snooty. I further laud Ms. Lansner for sticking to her intentions and presenting a work of straight linear narrative. Pieces like this are difficult to come by, and I would imagine equally problematic to produce. "Frankie's Wedding" continues its run tomorrow through Sunday at the Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street. In view of the relative scarcity of such productions, I recommend a viewing.

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