IMPRESSIONS: The Talking Band’s “Lemon Girls, or Art for the Artless” at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club
Writer and Composer: Ellen Maddow
Director: Paul Zimet /
Choreography: Sean Donovan / Set and Video Design: Anna Kiraly
Costume Design: Kiki Smith / Lighting Design: Mary Ellen Stebbins
Sound Design: Tyler Kieffer / Production Stage Manager: Kristin Rose Kelly / Assistant Costume Designer: Jill St. Coeur
Cast: Ellen Maddow - "Lorca" Patrena Murray -"Nivea" Lizzie Olesker - "Topo" Tina Shepard - "Fran"
Louise Smith - "Pinny" Jack Wetherall - "Sid Spitz"
Funny, irascible, fragile, and ultimately resilient, four girlhood chums, Lorca, Nivea, Pinny, and Topo, navigate the vagaries of staying vital while growing old. Now, senior citizens, they meet regularly in their neighborhood café to grouse, discuss their fates, and share observations.
Lemon Girls cast Lizzie Olesker, Louise Smith, Ellen Maddow, and Patrena Murray; photo by Andrew Bisdale
In the throes of grappling with the death of their best friend, Fran, they sleep fitfully, nod off, dream of romance, lie, say what is required so as not to hurt feelings, and reveal hidden tendernesses. Their lives are built on shared experiences at Lemon Elementary school located near Chicago. Recalling words of wisdom from teachers and the bold leadership of their dead friend, they experience a new challenge. They learn to dance.
A shoe dance, a coffee cup dance, four dance solos, a Fancy Hat Dance, a dream duet, a closest friends duet, a bloody body dance, a Bronx dance, a gesture dance, a chair dance, several entryway dances, a unison David Hockney dance, and a choreographed grand finale, many accompanied by song, are charming, scatological, silly, and dapper. Lemon Girls, or Art for the Artless is a buoyant production.
Choreographer Sean Donovan deftly contributes breezy movement to balance the sardonicism of this production. Gesture, walking patterns, and rhythmic interludes illustrate the multiple dances that smoothly carry the script forward. The characters, played by a multi-talented, perfectly poised cast, rely on companionship while learning movement, choreographing solos, and rehearsing the dance finale. They grapple with burdensome personal issues while Donovan’s choreography, full of zip, keeps the friends afloat. By communicating through movement, their hearts keep from breaking. Comments Lorca, “When we (dance) in unison a kind of a sigh, a kind of a spark goes through me. It feels and looks good. It’s like I went back to when I was 8 or something. Whatever I feel like doing, I do it.”
The Lemon Girls experience tall and lanky dancing Sid, a ROMEO (retired old man) as he makes an entrance, a scarf tossed around his neck. With artistic seriousness, he declares “5, 6, 7, 8, stretch, strike, chug to the left, tits to the people, wiggle wiggle, POSE” replete with mimetic gesture. Next, and to the delight of those in the audience who have endured the universal creative movement adventure, Sid guides the Lemon Girls during his (free!) ‘performance art’ workshop: “Keep on walking. Stop. And float. And stop. And float. And stop. The floor is sand, and your feet are hands. Squeeze. Caress. Shift and stop. The air is water. Your spine is seaweed, your elbows are eels, your feet in warm sand, your arms in cool water.” Even though they feel awkward, the Lemon Girls unwittingly expand their horizons.
Dance is the medium that allows the friends to process their grief and face their own futures with equanimity. They wrangle love, anger, aging, and death. As a result, they can let go of Fran. The play’s final image follows the conjured Fran as she dances. Elbows prominent, turning, hand on heart, arms flung high, Fran arches backward and dissolves out of sight.
The Talking Band, a left-leaning cadre who tends toward irony, founded the experimental theater company in 1974 in downtown NYC having performed with Joseph Chaikin’s seminal Open Theater. As in most Talking Band productions, including Lemon Girls, Art for the Artless, expressive dancing, “bitter little songs” (descriptive from the Lemon Girls screenplay) and text commingle to create a charming, irreverent commentary on those living lives at emotional crossroads.