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'Isadora' a dazzling dance before it loses its footing


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000

TAMPA -- Isadora is a one-act play stretched out over two acts. The first act of David A. McElroy's play about Isadora Duncan, played by his wife, Marilyn McGinnis, is a vivid portrait of the mother of modern dance.

Duncan the free-spirited artist is a feisty, fascinating figure in McGinnis' ardent performance at Gorilla Theatre. But the dancer on the downside of her career, hung over and overweight, wearing an orange wig, is less compelling.

"Having suffered through the death of my children, world wars and loss of lovers . . . nothing bothers me," she says right after intermission.

You can understand Duncan's sadness, but it leaves the play stranded with a whole act to go. Her drunken marriage to a Russian poet lacks the theatrical rationale of earlier romances, when she was struggling to balance the demands of love and art.

McElroy has done an effective job of relating Duncan's biography, but his play seems divided between trying to make political and cultural points while also wanting to be an intimate drama.

Duncan, active from 1899 until her death in 1927, is definitely worth knowing. For one thing, she was a strong-willed pioneer in the struggle for women's rights.

"I love but cannot find a harmony between love and my art," she says after breaking off an affair with Paris Singer, one of two men with whom she had a child but didn't marry. "I am left to wonder if a woman can really be an artist, since art is a hard taskmaster that demands everything. Whereas a woman who loves gives up everything to love."

McGinnis is excellent at demonstrating what must have made Duncan such a revelation in her time, dancing barefoot in daring costumes for puritanical audiences. A short, sturdy woman, clad in a filmy smock, she brings a graceful athleticism to the leaping, running, skipping and hair-tossing of Pam Killinger's choreography. There's a real sexual charge between Duncan and her first lover, Gordon Craig, a charming freeloader.

Duncan could also be something of a crackpot, with her passionate theories about dance. "I believe in the religion and the beauty of the human foot," she says.

Sean Sanczel plays Duncan's various lovers and other male characters in Isadora, which is an expanded version of McElroy's original one-woman show for McGinnis. Sanczel also performs on piano for her dancing.

Much of the play concerns itself with conflicts between work and motherhood. But was it really necessary to indulge in that cliche of primal drama, the childbirth scene?

"The barbarism of it all," screams Duncan, flat on her back, legs spread, muscles clenched. Then, just moments later, she is rocking a baby in her arms, singing a lullaby and musing about her latest educational project.

Such earnestness is typical. A little irony or distance from their subject would have helped the creators of Isadora to tell her remarkable story even better.

Theater review

Isadora by David A. McElroy runs through Dec. 17 at Gorilla Theatre. Tickets: $14 and $17. (813) 879-2914.

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