Brittle Steel Magnolias

Immersive performance experiences usually toe the blurry line between smashing through the fourth wall and discomfiting the audience with its intimacy. But when onlookers can cling to the familiarity of a tried and true theme, a delightful complacency settles in, and expectations tend to plateau. In director/choreographer/creator Mary John Frank's production of Debutaunt, five Southern belles conduct their coming-of-age rituals through an “interactive dance-based experience” complete with forehead-to-floor bows and book-balancing posture exercises. But the concept behind said experience wavers somewhat on the brink of maturity, even if the white gowns and heady dance numbers sufficiently hide the brittle subject matter.

The production is held at a fancily-named warehouse—Atelier Roquette—in one of the many silent streets of Red Hook’s old factory areas. We are greeted at the door by a perennially drunk debutant (Rachel Guest) and her wearied escort (Julian Devine), and are led into the cotillion-style party, where we are handed wristbands that match us to a particular deb. As the girls practice their court bows and posture exercises under the wrathful eye of steel magnolia Martha McMillen, they strain to hold their smiles and seek to incite rebellion against her. 

We harbor a half-sympathy, half-envy for the girls as they ready themselves for their debut, and their hunky escorts are welcome foils (Teddy Tedholm, something of a dance wunderkind, is the endearingly bumbling companion to Brittany Posas’ character). But they are conventional characterizations: the nerdy feminist (Melanie J. Comeau), the vapid cheerleader (Cara Seymour), the insecure overachiever (Brittany Posas), the wild drunk (Rachel Guest) and the "fat" girl (Elizabeth Dunn)—who really isn’t, by any standard, but perhaps that’s the point. Mantled mirrors show bodies that can be pinched, sucked in and held in the right places for a dress to fit, and salon tables hold every airbrushed fashion magazine that wreaked havoc on one's image perception as a teenager. In a mini performance that was deemed a fit exploration of this topic, the deb that "has" to lose her baby fat (Dunn) literally runs in circles around her proudly slim mother (Donna Fish), who is armed with a stopwatch and a whistle. 

But everyone is beautiful, and so is everything. Baby chandeliers and Christmas lights cling to the ceiling, strewing a lovely soft light on the checkered ballroom floor while couples waltz through dreamy dance sequences. Frank’s discarded personality as an ex-deb gives the choreography a bittersweet ache, and is the reigning success of this immersive experience. The five debutantes whom she directs are accomplished expressive dancers, as are their respective escorts. If it weren’t for the impromptu games of beer pong and the active attempts of the performers to mingle with the audience, spectators might have found the romance of the setting a little too intimate. Perhaps our savior in this respect is the Mistress of Ceremonies, Martha McMillen (played by Catherine C. Ryan), whose twanging shrieks and honeyed insults give her a kind of Disney-villain likability. 

But at some point, one cannot think past the pink lights and projections; projection designer Bart Cortright and lighting designer Joe Cantalupo have seen to such pretty distractions. On the walls behind the dance floor, screens show definitions of words like “daughter” and “princess” as short clips of girls with guns play next to it (perhaps a new subset of warrior feminists?) Costumer designer Liene Dobraja’s white, virginal gowns swish across the floor and further remind us of the hackneyed roles the girls are forced to play. It seems ironic that the dimensionless themes of the show (it doesn’t matter what’s on the outside, I’m a lady on the inside) are almost exactly replicated in the very fashioning of the production. At it’s core, Debutaunt’s substance flattens in service of unrepentant style. 

The performance breaks into a rip-roaring dance party after a satisfying, if lightweight, climax. As for the audience, there is no time for sheepish introversion. Outstretched hands drag you onto the dance floor and the sheer insistence on interactivity makes for quite an enjoyable experience. You are encouraged to take pictures with the show’s official photographer and post them to social media, in the requisite nod to our ballooning digital age (which doesn’t jar with the Old South flavor of the performance at all, interestingly enough). In the end, any nuance not overworked into a feminist trope may have given more heart to the production, but it remains a sparkling, and rather gilded, ball of fun.

Debutant ran at Atelier Roquette (63 Commerce Street in Brooklyn) to June 28. For more information, visit DebutauntBall.com.  

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