“Hate and respect are like Siamese twins—you bang one, and the other’s in the bed watching.” This kind of line, funny as a throw-away, is the height of humor and ingenuity in Marshall Pailet ’09’s new play, “Escape Artists.” Lines like this pepper the play, which, after the first few enjoyable scenes, gradually descends into triteness.
“Escape Artists” is the story of a washed-up dancer/egomaniac (Michael Eggleston ’10), a young female dancer with secrets (Allison Williams ’10) and an inspiration-less choreographer (Jay Frisby ’09) whose injury keeps him from his true passion: dancing. Triteness is tolerable until it verges on stereotype. Then it becomes offensive. Does the beautiful dancer have to be an overly sexualized, bulimic incest victim? Must the choreographer suddenly become her gay best friend when she looks upset? Must he point to his man purse to indicate to the vaguely homophobic, white, male dancer that, duh, he’s gay? This is not to say that these characters have no place in the theater. A deconstruction of such types could serve as an interesting critique of the prejudicial conceptions we use to categorize people. Perhaps this is what Pailet aims to do, but all he manages is to embody these stereotypes onstage, reinforcing types rather than deconstructing them.
The staging is an attempt to add originality to the hackneyed text — not only is this obvious, it’s mostly ineffective. A movie clip appearing in the middle of the play merely serves to add exposition that Pailet couldn’t manage to fit into the script. In a more innovative effort, Pailet gives each character a dancer persona to represent their past self. This is an interesting idea, formally, but all the personas provide are overly simplistic, cliched back-stories for the characters. The choreography is always either simply an evocation of ballet or hip-hop, or an overly literalized representation of emotion. Had there been an attempt to integrate the dance more fully, to use it to evoke abstractly a character’s past through movement, there could have been a truly effective integration of different fields of performance. Here, dance is a crutch for a poorly written script.
There is one moment, though, when Pailet’s staging achieves what it intends to. Raul, the choreographer, and his younger self face the audience on opposite sides of the stage and dance the same dance. Raul cannot keep up, however, and falls repeatedly. This juxtaposition of past grace and present frustration evocatively physicalizes what in dialogue is obvious and stale. This is a moment that has the power to provoke genuine empathy in the audience, even in spite of the extremely heavy-handed lighting (so much color was used for dramatic effect that, coupled with the dance, one couldn’t help thinking of a disco).
There is also a glimmer of originality in the script. In her climactic scene, the young female dancer Rose begs Dmitry (the egoistic male dancer with whom she becomes romantically involved) to ask her what happened to her. “I don’t know what your last boyfriend did, or your daddy,” Dmitry responds, “but I’m not them.” His answer is heartbreakingly callous and an indication that, on some level, Pailet realizes how common these kinds of stories are and how easily they can be reduced to simple formulas (I was abused by my father, therefore I am promiscuous and bulimic. The end). Taking this up as his primary theme might have produced a fresher exploration.
The actors do what they can with the characters they are given. Eggleston’s Dmitry is the most successful, mainly because his part is best suited to Pailet’s writing. Here Pailet’s cheesy jokes and tendency towards offensive oversimplification are purposeful; Dmitry is meant to be a jerk. Eggleston is believable in a way the other two cannot be. Allison Williams does as much as she can to play Rose simply and contained — an effort appreciated by the audience. She succeeds until the writing gets the better of her: She is forced to do things like burst into (not-at-all-convincing) tears and reveal that, no, her problem is not that her apartment has roaches, but that she has an eating disorder. Thankfully, Frisby’s performance mostly avoids a limp-wristed, lisping portrayal of a gay man, but — just as Pailet fails to find a new angle for old themes — Frisby does not replace old stereotypes with anything interesting.