What the Critics are Saying:

Quirky rom-com ‘Dancing Lessons’ charms in SF Bay Area premiere

By Sam Hurwitt

October 25, 2018

The title of “Dancing Lessons,” Center Repertory Company’s new show at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, is both terribly on the nose and a little misleading.

The 2015 play by Mark St. Germain (“Freud’s Last Session,” “Becoming Dr. Ruth”) is a two-person romantic comedy about a geosciences professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who enlists the help of a Broadway dancer recovering from a possibly permanent injury to help him learn to dance well enough to get through an awards dinner. Really, though, they only get through a fraction of one lesson (with sweet and amusing choreography by Jennifer Perry) before they move on to a whole lot of heart-to-heart discussions.

Both have a lot of stuff to work through, as much from their respective childhoods as from their conditions, and as you might expect in a romantic comedy like this one, they help each other do that in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Ever (yes, his name is Ever) is very clear in dialogue that his mild form of autism isn’t an impairment but simply a different way of processing the world around him, but the fact that he can’t stand to be touched is something that he’s trying to work on. He tries to look at it as a scientific project, the same way he studies facial expressions and body language online to try to better understand neurotypical people’s emotional cues.

Craig Marker is earnest and anxious as Ever, wringing a lot of humor from his blunt honesty and literal mindedness without (at least for the most part) making him the butt of the joke.

Nicely capturing dancerly grace impeded by her leg in a brace, Sharon Rietkerk is both appealingly witty and slightly misanthropic as Senga. (They do at least ask each other what’s up with those unusual names.) She’s understandably grumpy and defensive about her injury, terrified that she may never be able to return to the art she’s built her whole life around.

That singular focus is apparent in Kent Dorsey’s set of Senga’s compact apartment, every inch of the walls covered with Broadway musical and dance posters, photos and framed playbills. The large Lesher stage is reduced to a small box of that living room, framed by walls that occasionally become transparent to show Ever in the hallway, two video screens overhead sometimes showing what they’re looking at on their computers (projection and sound design by Teddy Hulsker).

The dialogue is very funny, and both the humor and the growing connection between the two are brought out beautifully by director Joy Carlin and the pair of canny performers in Center Rep’s West Coast premiere of the play.

There are occasional slow patches and times when the duo’s discussions start to feel artificial, especially a debate about whether theater is worthwhile that makes Ever sound a bit too thick headed.

Despite its general balance of respect for neurodiversity with the comedy of cultural misunderstandings, the play ultimately comes down to a familiar trope of two broken people who can’t really be fixed but whose chance meeting helps them on their way. All in all, though, it’s a pleasant, charming romantic comedy that lets a lot of life’s complications remain complicated.

Dancing Lessons is hilarious, touching, life affirming, & brilliantly honest!

By Charles Jarrett

October 31, 2018

The Center Repertory Theater Company under the astute management of Scott Denison, general manager, and Michael Butler, its artistic director, has never chosen to stand still, or to just be satisfied with its highly claimed and many successes. Each production, each season provides us with greater reason to become seasonal attendees in this beautiful, three theater venue in the heart of Walnut Creek. This past week a thoroughly delightful romantic comedy, Dancing Lessons, has opened its heart in this venue to those of us in need of diversion from the horrific news that greets us far too often these days.

Ever Montgomery (Craig Marker), a young man and professor of environmental science, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, has become desperate in seeking a solution to help him avoid embarrassment at an upcoming awards dinner in his honor, a ceremony that will be occurring within just a few days. One of his constant challenges with autism is that it always presents him with a painfully traumatic psychosomatic aversion to physical connections with other people. Knowing full well that the award ceremony will include dinner and dancing, he finds himself overwhelmed with great consternation that he will probably be expected to dance at the request of attendees at the party. Intellectually, he reasons that if he can learn enough about dancing, which he has never done in his life, he might be able to survive his overwhelming expectation of disaster.

Ever is aware that there is another tenant in his building, a Broadway dancer, Senga Quinn (Sharon Rietkerk), and proceeds nervously to implore her to provide him with a dancing lesson that he knows will be challenging to both of them, explaining to her that that he is afflicted with Asperger’s Symptom, an autism disorder. When he discovers that she has recently experienced a career challenging leg injury, he explains that all he needs is for her to show him some very simple dance steps and in exchange for that, he is willing to pay her an exorbitant fee for a one-hour lesson. Reluctantly, she acquiesces, as it is too large an amount to turn down, especially when she seriously needs the income. When she suggests slow dancing with a partner, which she can handle with her impairment, he immediately freaks out and explains that he simply cannot touch anyone! The audience subsequently experiences one of the most outrageously hilarious dance lessons ever!

What is Asperger syndrome? It is a sub classification of autism, a syndrome afflicting individuals that are often highly functioning, can be quite intelligent, perhaps even genius, but who also suffer from the related shortcomings of the autism disorder, such as repetitive behaviors and problems with speech and nonverbal communication. Further, they are often highly opinionated, can have amazing vocabularies, are easily upset by changes in routine, and usually prefer to be alone. Further, they often have strange and strong reactions to sensory stimuli (smells, sounds, textures, lights and tastes), and struggle with personal relationships. Not exactly the best formula for engaging with a person of the opposite sex in a dancing lesson.

This humorous, or perhaps I should say hilarious, intersection of two desperate human beings, provides a delightful evening, a touching evening, a love-filled evening, a brutally honest evening, that I almost wished would not end. Smartly written with no intermission, this 90 minute production it is truly a wonderful experience and one that you should not miss! Under the skillful direction of Joy Carlin, the very clever set design of Kent Dorsey, terrific costume design by Brooke Jennings, Dancing Lessons delivers a punch, a terrific local professional production. It continues Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, with Sunday performances at 2:30 pm now through Saturday, November 17th in the Margaret Lesher Theater located in the Lesher Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets range between $34 and $56 each and can be secured by purchasing them at the Lesher Center for the Arts box office, at the Downtown Walnut Creek Library or by calling (925) 943 SHOW (7469). This is so good that I would love to see it again and take my friends!


Dancing Lessons Shimmies and Shakes at Center REP Walnut Creek

By Beau McGlasson

October 30, 2018

Millennial Notes

Mark St. Germain Asks: Do We Have the Strength to Change?

Dance is pure human expression. It’s the carefree wildness of a club at 1 A.M., the controlled passion of tango. You can dance on your own to Robyn or tangle yourself in your lover’s arms. Dancing expresses frustration or liberation.

“Dancing Lessons,” the hilarious play by Mark St. Germain at Center REP, poignantly examines two people—a dancer who has injured her leg and a man who is trapped by Asperger’s—both stuck in time, fearing their futures. Can the magic of dance set them free?

Senga (whip-sharp Sharon Rietkerk) and Ever (lovable Craig Marker), neighbors in Manhattan apartments, have never met. Their lives collide when Ever knocks on her door to offer Senga an insane amount of money for a quick dance lesson to prepare for an awards dinner.

Senga and Ever feel alone, anxiously terrified of exposing themselves. Senga is suffering a potentially career-ending injury. If the dance world finds out about her injury, she will be finished.

Ever, a climate scientist, fears all social interactions. His Asperger’s makes him feel uncomfortable and clumsy. To compensate, he sees life as transactional—just wins and losses. By reducing social encounters to transactions, he can win with logic, rather than expose his emotional insecurities.

St. Germain’s probing wit shines through in the interweaving of Ever and Senga’s dance lessons with Ever’s lectures on the looming dangers of climate change. The juxtaposition of dance and climate change demands action. They cry out for change, individually and globally.

As a dancer, Senga constantly struggles with life’s highs and lows: no one is crowned right or wrong. Instead, in dance, she expresses and lives in the struggle, constantly testing her dedication and skill.

The two grow close during the lessons, understanding one another slowly through witty jokes that lower their defenses. Both feel injured and somehow less because they are not “perfect.”

At one point, Senga accuses Ever of making a joke at her expense. When Ever retorts, “Why would I make jokes when I don’t understand them?” Senga starts to re-evaluate their budding romance. Ever puts himself, honestly, on display in his own awkward and uncomfortable way. If Ever can be so genuine, can she lower her wall of sarcasm and jokes?

When a student asks Ever if he thinks people can change in time to save the Earth, he admits that change will be painful, scary. But Ever and Senga’s growing intimacy gives us hope that change is inevitable.

Finally, “Dancing Lessons” shows that we crave acceptance and love. St. Germain shows that sticking to old ways can be more painful than change. It’s a deeply personal example of how change affects the world.


Nobody's Perfect

By George Heymont

October 31, 2018

Up in Walnut Creek, Center Rep is presenting the West Coast premiere of Mark St. Germain's poignant two-hander entitled Dancing Lessons (which received its world premiere in 2014 from the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts). Upon first meeting his characters, the audience is immediately made aware that each has been carrying around a shitload of emotional baggage for quite some time.

As the play begins, Senga Quinn is licking her wounds in a pity party for one. A Broadway dancer who has suffered a career-threatening injury to her right leg, her allergy to a particular surgical anesthetic may make it impossible for an orthopedic surgeon to operate on her knee. The result is a steady regimen of self medication in which pain pills are swallowed with a swig of booze. With her movement hampered by a leg brace, she is not a happy camper. The constant arrival of voice mail messages from the aunt who raised her (Senga's mother died during childbirth) does nothing to alleviate her misery. Her aunt's desire to come stay with Senga in her tiny, cluttered Manhattan apartment only makes matters worse.

Living two floors above Senga is an attractive professor of geosciences who works very hard to overcome the hurdles presented by his autism. With a keen mind and an insatiable thirst for data, Ever Montgomery prefers to refer to himself as an "Aspie" even though the medical field seems to be trying to distance itself from the use of Asperger syndrome as a clinical diagnosis. Ever needs help with a very specific personal problem and has learned from the building's janitor that Senga might be the one person to save him from an evening of excruciating embarrassment.

Ever's crisis has been precipitated by the fact that he is about to be honored at a professional awards dinner and must be able to dance at the event. As someone who prefers not to have anyone look directly at him (and who suffers from an almost crippling fear of human touch), Ever is acutely aware of the challenges created by his Asperger's. Much like Sheldon Cooper, he doesn't understand humor (especially sarcasm), but knows how to do meticulous research. By calculating what a Broadway dancer's weekly earnings at union scale should be, he has decided on a wildly exorbitant figure (more than $2,000) which he is offering to pay Senga for one hour of instruction in how to dance.

The set-up is perfect for a romantic comedy which, for a constellation of factors, will not be resolved with the man and woman falling head over heels in love and living happily ever after. However, for two seriously flawed individuals struggling to maintain their fragile sense of dignity, St. Germain's "meet, but not cute" first encounter progresses through a script of surprising depth as Senga and Ever learn how to let their defenses down long enough to find ways they can help each other.

Working on a unit set designed and lit by Kent Dorsey (with costumes by Brooke Jennings), Center Rep's production has been directed by Joy Carlin in a manner that demonstrates compassion coupled with coaching and desperation buffered by grace.

Sharon Rietkerk (seen frequently on Bay area stages in a variety of musical roles) brings a world-weary sense of defeat to Senga, whose sole reason to exist (dancing) may have suddenly been taken away from her. Senga's interactions with Ever are made more poignant by the fact that she is confronted with someone who may be battling much tougher life hurdles but is willing to fight for every piece of information that can help him to succeed.

The role of Ever Montgomery offers a keen challenge to an actor who must not only demonstrate a lack of understanding of many things most people take for granted, but incorporate into his characterization the nervous body language of someone with Asperger's. Not only must his character be carefully and continually observing Senga, his learning process is nowhere as intuitive as a dancer's. As a result, his clumsiness is more social than physical.

St. Germain gives the audience a taste of fairy-tale romance during a final interlude in which the two wounded souls are seen dancing as they might imagine they could. It is a beautiful touch of magical realism with which to end the play before St. Germain gently brings his audience back down to earth. While both actors shine in their roles, Craig Marker gives one of his most impressive performances in years.


Dancing Lessons

By Marc Gonzalez

October 26, 2018

Mark St. Germain’s West Coast premiere production of Dancing Lessons is receiving a remarkably charming production at Center Repertory Theatre in Walnut Creek. Mr. Germain’s script is strong in its sincerity as a rom-com that embraces the silly while not shirking the realistic. A two-person play with no intermission, the audience is invited into Broadway dancer, Senga’s, New York apartment. Ever, who, at first glance, is a neurotic nerd in need of a dance lesson, becomes the object of genuine affection for Senga, and the feelings are reciprocated. Though the play’s structure indicates a love story, through superb acting and excellent direction by Joy Carlin, the simply wonderful journey from Senga and Ever results in a romance that is fresh and unexpected.

Plagued by an injury, Senga is on medical “house arrest,” leg brace and all. When a faculty awards night is planned at Ever’s university, he realizes he needs a crash course in dancing, pronto! With the incentive of a Broadway dance captain’s weekly salary being offered for one hour’s work, Senga has no choice but to allow Ever to enter the apartment for a lesson. Silly names aside, and yes they are explained in the play, these two well-crafted characters are anything but silly. Ever has an ailment, that I dare not reveal here, which creates an initial boundary between him and Senga. However, Ever is blunt, no lies or sarcasm where he’s concerned, while Senga is all shades of sarcastic, bitter, and treading down a seasoned liar’s path. Played by Craig Marker and Sharon Rieterk, the chemistry and dynamic growth of their relationship is alluring and filled with investment from the audience.

Mr. Marker is earnest in Ever’s forthright approach to Ms. Rietkerk’s Senga, exuding with ease the demeanor of a science professor who is always on the research side of conversations. Ms. Rietkerk is a champion at playing the victim, as Senga is all too comfortable with inviting others to join her one-woman pity party. Ms. Rietkerk’s energy and balletic physicality reinforces how much dance means to Senga, that it really is all she identifies with. As she and Mr. Marker make their way through Mr. Germain’s script, the two find ways to connect, disconnect, and problem solve. What happens at the end of the play is a beautiful partner dance, choreographed by Jennifer Perry, which has the intoxicating, heartwarming spirit of an Astaire-Rogers number with the gravitas of a well-earned culmination for the actors’ great work in setting up just how meaningful the slow dance turn is.

What makes this play so enjoyable is the aforementioned direction and incredibly detail-oriented design team. Ms. Carlin helms this production with the right balance of rom-com hysterics and legit theatre dramatics. It’s a style that isn’t the easiest to balance, but Ms. Carlin does so without a hiccup in pacing or fluidity. Kent Dorsey’s set design is a wholeheartedly accurate depiction of a New York dancer’s apartment. The mounds of musical and dance company posters framed on the walls and a desk full of clutter give accent to Senga’s homebound distress she feels throughout the play. Teddy Hulsker’s projection and sound design are superb, allowing the transitions between Ever’s lecture hall and Senga’s city skyline to be executed with ease.

The takeaway from Mr. Germain’s play may be varied for audience members depending on outside circumstances and life experiences the playwright cannot control. What I can assure you, though, is this play will leave you entertained and pondering how people can change, whether or not there’s data to back it up, an ongoing theme in Ever’s world. Human experience and human connection happen for many reasons, even something as simple and innocent as an injured dancer giving a dance lesson. Go see this show.

Dancing Lessons offers Audiences both Hilarious and Heartwarming Discoveries

By Jan Miller

October 26, 2018

“Can people change?” Perhaps this is the question posed, and can be taken away in Center REPertory Company’s tender-hearted, info-filled romantic comedy “Dancing Lessons,” currently playing through November 17 at the Lesher Theatre (1601 Civic Drive) in downtown Walnut Creek, CA. The answer to that question is complicated, at least if one goes by the data as presented by Ever (portrayed by brilliant performer Craig Marker), a geo-scientist who also has Asperger's syndrome. But on a different level — specifically between himself and a neighbor, an injured dancer living in denial — change may not only be possible, but required in this cute play that arrives just in time for the beginning of the holiday season.

The dancer taking center stage, Senga Quinn (played by the eloquent Sharon Rietkerk), is holed up in her apartment with a serious leg injury that threatens her career. When neighbor Ever Montgomery, a professor with a condition that is fearful of touch, asks for a dancing lesson so he can deal with social intimacy (handshaking, hugs, dancing) at an upcoming awards banquet, a relationship slowly develops that has both of them stepping out of their comfort zones.

Wanting a dance lesson, but not being open to touching can make things awkward. Odd perhaps, yet at the same time very funny. But the extraordinary and sometimes painful effort Ever is willing to endure to try to fit in a world of “neuro-typicals” is endearing.

For those who don’t have such highly sensitized “touch” issues, not to worry. This, and many aspects of Asperger’s and autism in general, is well-explained — perhaps ‘over explained’ — early in the play.

During the course of the play the continuing explanation of Asperger’s actually turns it into a lecture – but in a good way. The audience doesn’t get lost in the world of this condition. Instead, audience members are fascinated.

Oh, great, a speech about autism! Not to worry. Once the relationship of Ever and Senga kicks in, which eventually occurs with some very humorous moments, both learn to break out of their shells and trust each other.

When the audience first meets Senga holed up in her West Side Manhattan apartment she is angry, depressed and living with unrealistic expectations of her return to the dance world, given a medical condition that she has that makes having an operation a life-threatening risk.

Ever is the ultimate data-driven guy who is incapable of dishonesty and reading basic emotional signals.

As the play proceeds, he teaches her to face reality. She teaches him imagination.

As Senga says during a conversation with Ever, people attend live theater because they “feel other people’s emotions, see the world like they do.” In saying this, she could easily be talking about the play in which she appears.

Sharon Rietkerk as Senga is a charmer as she gradually transforms, going from isolated depressive to a woman with humor, warmth and perspective — and in one scene, she dances like a dream.

Craig Marker as Ever is terrific as he brings a believability to his character’s contrasting characteristics of strength, brilliance and extreme vulnerability.

Watching Ever and Senga, the audience comes to admire this pair, and a realization comes to the forefront: If we’d only be more open to connecting with others, we’d could very well be pleasantly surprised at what we might discover.

Director Joy Carlin molds the two characters as they slowly get to know and trust each other. In one sequence where the dancer encourages him to shake hands, the sequence is both hilarious and spellbinding. This is, after all, something he has been unable to do without sensory overload, and watching the pair work out the difficulties brings great heart and humanity to the simplest of actions.

It is the complex human elements of the story that drove Artistic Director Michael Butler to select “Dancing Lessons” for Center REP’s current season. “Dancing Lessons” is totally absorbing, from its brilliantly conceived story to its first rate acting. Even the set design (by Kent Dorsey) adds to the depth of the story.

Dancing Lessons

By Victor Cordelle

October 25, 2018

Many of us are broken in one way or another. In the case of Ever and Senga, it’s just more obvious. He suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome.  This form of autism, often marked by lack of empathy, is evidenced by  a poor ability to judge what is socially acceptable to say and do, and difficulty interpreting the meaning of facial expressions and the tone in people’s voices. She is a dancer recovering from a shattered kneecap. Their unlikely friendship is the basis for Mark St. Germain’s touching and funny play, Dancing Lessons, which goes by quicker than you may wish.

As an environmental scientist and professor, Ever has received a prize that will be presented at a ceremony. While he is capable of delivering a required speech, he is mortified at having to dance, which will also be expected. Not only does he not know how to dance, he is terrified of the human touch. Learning about Senga’s accident from their apartment building super, he introduces himself and offers her an outrageous sum for a one-hour dancing lesson, which he figures should be sufficient for his needs.

St. Germain gives us two characters that we can embrace, and they are portrayed with great sensitivity. Wide-eyed and effusive, Craig Marker is remarkable as Ever. Constantly fidgeting and often motor mouthing, he is usually oblivious to how funny things are that come out of his mouth. Due to his misinterpretations, he asks “Do you charge for sex?” and “Did I interrupt a suicide attempt?” – not exactly questions normally asked of a new acquaintance. We feel sad for his affliction but admire that he has harnessed his intellect for the better.

A perfect foil to the unguarded Ever, Sharon Rietkerk finds the right nuance as Senga. In contrast to Ever’s clumsiness, and despite a knee brace, her Senga is lithe and graceful. Yet she betrays a certain diffidence. Her pain and her dedication to her craft are palpable from the outset, and in time, we learn of her secrets and fears. Rietkerk alternately reveals anger, depression, defensiveness, offensiveness, fear, joy, and compassion as her character faces an uncertain future and deals with a bombastic intrusion into her life.

Despite the limits of 90 minutes, two characters, and mostly one room, Dancing Lessons covers a lot of ground. It’s about relationships and truth.  It’s also about change which Ever argues brings pain to both the autistic and the neuro-typical, but is necessary to lift us from the comfortable dull. And while some incidents in the story are treated simplistically (which can’t be discussed without spoiling), the resulting compressed timeline facilitates the pacing.

The play is a bit preachy at times in a couple of ways. First, a great deal of explication is provided about Asperger’s and autism throughout, which informs those who may not be familiar with the condition. This does relate. In addition, the playwright didn’t randomly make Ever an environmental professor but sees this as a drumbeat opportunity to alert the audience to our impending doom. Though his concern is shared and well supported, it is shoehorned into a story with little connection to it.

However, a script full of laughs and things to think about; great direction by Joy Carlin and fine creative elements by her team; plus two terrific performances yield an entertaining evening. And the development of the themes provides enough substance to make it more than just a forgettable rom-com.

AISLE SAY San Francisco

Dancing Lessons become life-changing for sufferers

By Judy Richter

October 26, 2018

Two suffering people find help in unexpected ways in Mark St. Germain’s humorous and touching “Dancing Lessons,” presented by Center Repertory Company. This two-person romantic comedy features Sharon Rietkerk as Senga Quinn, a talented professional dancer who has a possibly career-ending knee injury; and Craig Marker as Ever Montgomery, a brilliant geosciences professor whose autism means, among other things, that he can’t stand to be touched.

However, he knows he must overcome this phobia because he’s the honoree at an awards dinner dance.

He and Senga hadn’t met, but they live in the same New York City apartment building. Thanks to its super, he knows she’s an injured dancer.

As the play opens, she’s on her couch with her right leg encased in a brace while she pops pills and washes them down with scotch. At first she won’t let him in when he knocks on her door, but he persists. He offers her more than $2,000 for an hour teaching him to dance.

His attempts at a fast dance are awkward but gradually improve. The lesson progresses to shaking hands. Later it goes beyond that.

During the lessons, which take place over several days, they learn more about each other and themselves, their strengths and weaknesses.

Other scenes show Ever characteristically shifting his weight while lecturing about the perils of global warming because of human actions. A pivotal moment comes when a student asks if people can change.

One lesson that both Ever and Senga learn is that change takes courage. That means they have to recognize their problems and try to overcome them.

Director Joy Carlin has fine-tuned this outstanding production and elicited believably human performances from both actors. She and they also mine the script’s ample humor along with facts about autism and global warming.

A video of Rietkerk’s Senga in a captivating dance (choreographed by Jennifer Perry) showcases her great talent.

Design elements enhance the production with set and lighting by Kent Dorsey, costumes by Brooke Jennings, and sound and projections by Teddy Hulsker.