South Philly guys who live to dance put on a fine show

Terry Brennan and Janice Rowland are a South Philadelphia couple divided by dance - he's driven to try out his steps and she is mystified by it all, in "Heavy Metal Dance Fag."
Terry Brennan and Janice Rowland are a South Philadelphia couple divided by dance - he's driven to try out his steps and she is mystified by it all, in "Heavy Metal Dance Fag." (SCOTT A. DRAKE)
Posted: September 06, 2011

If you're waiting for the buzz about what will be the big-deal, dark-horse hit of the Fringe Festival, here it is: a raw-talking, blood-pumping, street-smart and altogether charming piece with the unlikely title Heavy Metal Dance Fag. It comes from the minds of the highly physical local troupe called Tribe of Fools, which also ran away successfully in the last Fringe with an oddball take on Dracula, for which audience members had to sign waivers before being admitted.

This one's about guys who live to dance, first secretly and then . . . more secretly, in a setting where that's not exactly approved. The show is chockablock with elements that make it ripe for Fringe hit status here: A big taste of Philly culture, lots of raw talk that makes sense, an outré sensibility that shimmers in a highly traditional narrative arc, a serious subject treated with slick irreverence that oddly brings it into focus, and the notion that baseball can overwhelm all differences. Five skilled performers bring it off with pizzazz and polish, and look great doing it.

Heavy Metal Dance Fag is South Philly all the way, about best friends growing into adulthood from a close-knit life tied together by their similar backgrounds and culture (Catholic and mostly Italian). South Philly may be its place, but the show deals intellectually in a tough sexual neighborhood, as well - that shady-gray area where gay meets straight and nothing is easily defined; Heavy Metal Dance Fag's brio comes partly from its solid comfort there.

But this is all getting a bit heavy for a play that at its heart is light and goofy, full of cartoon-macho dancing and stylized acting that reveals a lot about what people think while they talk, and with a clear contract between cast and audience that on one expansive level, this is for fun.

A guy (Terry Brennan, Tribe of Fools' artistic director) has taken to dancing in his room, a mixture of show, disco, and street moves he's obviously proud to create and execute, if only for himself. But his best buddy (Peter Smith) finds out, the girl who attracts them both (Janice Rowland) is mystified, and another pal (I saw understudy Zachary Chiero on Saturday night) is himself suspect as some sort of weirdo. An additional character (Jess Conda) brings to the plot the notion that macho is tied to character, not sexual preference.

What evolves is a series of questions, probably unanswerable for these characters, and for many others: How do you define being yourself? How do you then be yourself? And how do you be the person everyone - including you - thinks you should be? (Which leads us to mention the offstage mother, the long-suffering voice of Colleen Hughes.)

The 75-minute one-act starts with a brief eulogy for the main character's father, who figures throughout. That story line would be lacking without its funny (and challenging) dancing, choreographed for maximum expression by Miranda Libkin. And maximum expression is what you get here. For me, the result is maximum delight.


Heavy Metal Dance Fag

$20. 7 p.m. Sept. 8, 10 and 11; 7 and 9:30 p.m. Sept. 7 and 9. St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, between Market and Chestnut. Information: www.livearts-fringe.org. 215-413-1318.


Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

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