Word Surge

If you have the patience to wait for it, you'll find about 20 minutes of absolutely riveting theater in Ned Snell's about the author ..., currently playing at the Silver Meteor Gallery. Of course, first you have to get there — which means sitting through writer/performer Snell's impersonations of novelist Peter Wasser, lover Martin, critic Charles and the left and right hemispheres of a brain-heavy author. Fortunately, Snell is a fine actor and a literate, thoughtful playwright. So even though there's little that's terribly original in the show's first act-and-a-half, there's the performance itself to admire, and, on occasion, some nicely worded observations.

For example, when writer Peter complains that his distressingly conventional life adds up to only "white words on white paper." Or when caustic drama critic Charles confesses that he prefers movies to plays and is particularly fed up with "the solo performance piece — the last desperate gasp of the cash-poor producer." What Snell demonstrates in all these scenes is a capable intellect, a degree of wit and a love of language; and if his views of a writer's struggles seem overly familiar, at least they're nicely penned.

But then, just when you thought you'd pretty much found Snell's limitations, he starts "Bobby Plays the Big Room" — and he breaks through every barrier. The premise of the scene is that Snell is singer Bobby Darin, coming awake in the afterlife. His only props are a tape recorder and pile of index cards, each of which asks questions like "What is your name?" and "What was your greatest failure?" As he answers each query, or tries to avoid a straight answer, he tells the story of his strange, short life, beginning with his birth as Walden Robert Cassotto and his difficult, sickly childhood. He boasts about his singing career, about climbing the charts — and always seeing Elvis at the top, smiling down on him, unthreatened. He talks about "Mack the Knife," about being booed when he tried to repackage himself as a hippie, about the shame of his family life and the failure of his marriages.

And through it all, actor Snell is so persuasive, so powerfully angry and cynical, that you simply forget all the other scenes, forget that the show's subject is supposed to be writers, and just enjoy an entirely remarkable performance. Snell as Darin is suffused with bitterness and melancholy but never defeated, never really bested. And while the scenes about writers seemed old hat even with their fine language, this stuff is fresh, this perspective's a new one, and, frankly, this acting is dazzling. In this scene Snell turns out to be a terrific performer and a writer with an eye on what's tragic in popular culture.

But then the segment's over, the magic dissipates and we're back with novelist Peter. Ho-hum.

But we can't forget what we just experienced.

Oh yeah, Teresa Gallar's set of a writer's study is no better than adequate. But Jo Averill's sound design is one of the pleasures of the evening, including everything from popular tunes to a weird noise that's supposed to be the importunate wife of critic Charles.

But I'm still thinking about Snell's Darin.

And wondering if this surprising performer might attempt an evening of pop figures. ...

Liz Biz. When four members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange bring their work to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this weekend, area audiences will have a small-scale opportunity to taste one of the most innovative of current approaches to modern dance.

"I'm interested in who gets to dance; I'm interested in what the dances are about; I'm wondering where do they happen and who ultimately cares," says Lerman, 53. "And those four questions led me into just an amazing array of possibilities."

Displaying some of those possibilities at the Shimberg Playhouse Oct. 12-14 will be company members Peter DiMuro, the satellite company's "curator"; Elizabeth Johnson; Celeste Miller; and Marvin Webb. And if you like what you see, you'll want to line up seats for February, when the entire company, Lerman included, arrives with a concert on the subject of Leonard Bernstein and the Age of Anxiety.

Underpinning both events will be the Lerman philosophy: that dance shouldn't be limited to super-athletes in their 20s, that there's more to the dance than "how high you can jump" or "how many revolutions can you make," and that choreography should arise from the life stories of the dancers or from the activity of "real people" out in the world. Though the oldest dancer for this weekend's event is only in his 40s, one of the members of the larger company is 68, and there's an apprentice in her 70s. Lerman says that elderly dancers aren't all that different from the young: "Every dancer has their limitations, including the really great ones. ... I'm intrigued by the limitations that people have. I think it's really interesting."

She's also intrigued with choreography that's suggested by non-dancers. For example, at a New Hampshire shipyard, her company found inspiration in the movements of ship's welders and in the home life of officers' wives. "It turns out that people who aren't trained have very unique ways of moving," she says, "and that if we can capture some of that, I think it brings a rawness and an authenticity to the movement that's pretty interesting."

But she also regularly asks company members to look for ideas in their own stories. "When people get into this company, they have to be inventors," Lerman says. "They can't only be people who know how to get their leg up high." Her company is ethnically diverse, and represents her attempt to reduce the artist's isolation and "do something in the world. ... Art can be such an incredible force for allowing people who are different to spend time together. It's amazing."

The 25-year-old Liz Lerman Dance Exchange has performed at that New Hampshire shipyard, at a bombed-out church in Poland, in the bathrooms of the Kennedy Center and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Now it's coming, in part, and later in its entirety, to Tampa. In this weekend's show, expect four autobiographical solos employing some text. Then in February — well, Lerman says she's been researching Bernstein's life, and cultivating possibilities. ...

These look like performances not to be missed.

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