Martha Graham said, “movement never lies.” This is true not just in dance, but for theatre. On the stage, words can be telling you one thing and the body quite another and – from my perspective as a dance critic – a good actor will reveal more truth physically than aurally. I find myself going more by movement and gesture than text when I am looking at theater.
Consider Lilli Stein in the role of the 13-year old Cassidy in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate. She uses space and gesture in ways that let you see through her character’s psychology. She’s got the thought she is thinking, the lie she is telling and the typical 13-year old pivot to an ambivalent changed-mind; it’s all happening simultaneously.
Plopped on the couch, she is asked if she likes her slightly older cousin, Rhys (David Rosenblatt). The questioner means “likes” as in sexual attraction. “Ewwwwwwwwwwwwww!” I don’t even know if she says it, but Stein snaps shut in a fetal curl no crow bar could pry apart. Her eyes, peeking out, announce the possibility that maybe, maybe, okay well she does like cousin Rhys and maybe, maybe she has a sympathetic listener. Her forehead strikes an angle and you swear to god you can see traces of confused teenage sexual energy radiate off it like a human satellite dish.
Good actors can make you see things that aren’t there. So when Franz (Reese Madigan) rushes in dripping wet from his madcap jump into the pond, probably taking grandpa’s controversial photo album with him, I looked to Cassidy for clues. There she is by grandpa’s armchair with her back sheepishly turned, guarding her secret from the group. What she knows instantly – quicker than anyone else in the room because she is smarter than anyone else in the room – is that those photos are done. Gone. Over. Fish food.
Both actors, Madigan and Stein, are equally matched. Both know that where they stand in relation to other characters takes yet another measurement of their characters. The empty space between them is a shape, and that shape has almost a physical dynamic. Such actors thrill the eye with messages that are often beyond the reach of the text they are performing.
Harry Groener’s performance as the Older Man in Sarah Ruhl’s Ten-Minute Play, Two Conversations Overheard on Airplanes, is what brought legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s words about movement to mind. She said that dancers dance with their faces. Even if a character is meant to be impassive, blank and neutered, the most brilliant dancers drive ideas through their cheekbones and eyes and they can even control whether light is absorbed by the skin – or bounces off it. Sightings of such dancers and actors are rare, and it was a pleasure to watch Groener precisely because he didn’t have to do much to read big. He listened to the young man’s poem with the most discrete facial muscle adjustments blaring bemusement, empathy and distaste, and then told a white lie and praised the poet. Had the poet been looking he would have known the truth; Groener made it register to the last row in the balcony.