Review: Heavy Metal Dance Fag

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

If you’re waiting for the buzz about what will be the big-deal dark-horse hit of the Fringe festival, hear it here first: a raw-talking, blood pumping, street smart and altogether charming piece – one of several festival shows tucked somewhere inside a basement this season – with the unlikely title of 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 signed waivers before being admitted.

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Dirty-little-secret dancing?: Terry Brennan as a guy who's gotta dance and Janice Rowland as his girlfriend who's not sure why, in the Fringe's "Heavy Metal Dance Fag," which Brennan directs along with Shannon Fitzsimons. Critic Howard Shapiro pegs it as a dark-horse hit -- possibly the dark-horse hit -- of the festival.

Now comes this show about young-adult guys who live to dance, first secretly and then … more secretly … and exist in a setting where that’s not exactly approved. This sounds like the plot of Billy Elliot, and while Heavy Metal Dance Fag shares characters with similar aspirations, the connection ends there.

The show is choc-a-bloc with elements ripe for a Fringe hit here: A big taste of Philly culture, a lot of raw talk that makes sense, an outré sensibility that shimmers within 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. To make it work, 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 adults from a close-knit teen-age life tied together by their similar economic backgrounds and culture, which in this case is Roman Catholic and mostly Italian-blooded. South Philly may be its place, but the show deals intellectually in a tough sexual neighborhood, as well – that shady-grey area where gay meets straight and nothing is easily defined; Heavy Metal Dance Fag’s brio comes partly from its solid comfort in that realm.

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

A guy (played by Terry Brennan, Tribe of Fools’ artistic director) has taken to dancing in the privacy of his bedroom, 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 the 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 to sexual preference.

What evolves is a series of questions, probably unanswerable for these characters and for many people: How do you define being yourself? How do you then be yourself? And how do you be the person everyone else -- and that includes you -- expects 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 snippet of eulogy to the main character’s dad, who figures in the plot throughout.  That storyline 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.

$20. 7 p.m. Sept. 4, 8, 10 and 11; 7 and 9:30 p.m. Sept. 3, 5, 7, 9 and 10 (added show). St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, between Market and Chestnut.