By Ken Trainor
Would you like to learn to dance?
Well I can show you that.
Got a book here with all you need to know.
We can draw the Arthur Murray patterns right here on the floor
And all you have to do is follow.
And then we'll dance around the room a while.
You can lead now if you want to, I don't mind.
Nothin' I wouldn't do to see a smile
Go dancin' 'cross your face in perfect time.
Would You Like to Learn to Dance?
It's odd how things work out.
A few years ago, if I were to guess who wouldn't survive among our four local theater groups — Circle, Village Players, Festival, and Open Door — I would have bet that Open Door would be the one most likely to close its doors.
Now, suddenly, Circle Theatre is gone (from around here anyway) and Village Players is played out, leaving only Festival Theatre and Open Door Repertory Company.
Festival used to be outdoors in the summer only. In the past decade, they expanded to spring and fall productions. And thank God they did.
Open Door was a "wing it and pray" grassroots company, started by a group of passionate amateurs who cobbled together productions at the Hatch Elementary School auditorium. They went in and out of hibernation during the last five years of economic downturn (a depression, really, for arts companies), but somehow managed to rehab a dreary little convenient store on Ridgeland near Harrison (complicated by environmental remediation). By some miraculous turn of events (no doubt involving a lot of elbow grease in addition to the greasepaint), they transformed it into a comfortable, attractive performing space.
If you haven't been there, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Had they known that Circle and Village Players would pull a disappearing act, they might have spared themselves the toil and trouble (not to mention expense) and waltzed right into the waiting arms of Madison Street Theater, which was itself nicely renovated a few years back.
On the other hand, a theater in the Oak Park Arts District (Harrison Street between Austin and Ridgeland, in case you haven't discovered it) makes an excellent addition.
I wasn't feeling particularly optimistic about the future of local theater in Oak Park, however, when I entered Open Door's open doors on Super Bowl Sunday for the matinee performance of their current production, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.
A couple of hours later, I felt a lot more hopeful.
This "play de deux," elegant in its simplicity, is funny, wise, and endearing, well written, well choreographed and well acted, particularly by Mercita de Monk, the stalwart backbone of Village Players for a good portion of its history. How appropriate, then, that Open Door should "inherit" her for this production.
(Someone should find a play written for two older women to highlight the considerable talents of de Monk and Betty Scott Smith, another Village Players standout.)
Six Dance Lessons is a tango to tolerance and transparency, but it is also a celebration of aging women, bringing to mind a poem by Yeats:
How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with love false or true
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." These partners use dance lessons to travel (as a movie poster once put it) the greatest distance of all: between two people.
When I left Open Door that Sunday, I felt delight, a tell-tale sign of a satisfying play. I felt the same after Festival Theatre's remarkable production of Richard III last summer — as well as their tour-de-force, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, this fall.
In Oak Park, we don't just have local theater. We have quality local theater, featuring considerable talent — people like Kevin Theis, Jack Hickey, Tony Dobrowolski, Belinda Bremner and Mercita de Monk.
But we won't have it for long — not unless more people start attending. Make no mistake, local theater is an endangered species here, in spite of our distinguished half-century heritage.
I'm an unapologetic booster of our local arts scene but not a mindless booster. I have to maintain my credibility or my recommendations won't carry any weight. I'm recommending this one.
Happily, you still have two weekends' worth of Lessons left. I'm confident you'll agree it was worth your time — and the ticket price. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. (708-342-0810 or visit www.opendoorrep.org).
Two hours of offbeat (and on-beat) romance in the wake of Valentines Day.
Or as Steve Goodman would say: Would you like to learn to dance?
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