Michael Walker's new play Dancing in the Garden, is concerned with Maria (Sarah Corey), a young Italian-American girl, who is raised and strongly identifies as a Catholic, who comes to realize she's a Lesbian, and has trouble reconciling that with her faith, as Catholicism is quite anti-homosexual (or at least anti-homosexual actions). There is nearly no plot in the play, it's merely a series of awkwardly-narrated actions, switching back and forth between scenes and Maria's clunky "Story Theatre" commentary . Maria as a character has no agency; she's merely a pinball bouncing around the events of her life. She seems to have no real problems- after a girlish crush on her priest Father Mike (Sam Kitchin), she plans to join a convent after high school, but then she realizes she likes girls. Maria has sex with a girl, comes out to her amazingly-understanding father (Joe Gioco) while still in high school, and he arranges for her to go away to college so she can have some freedom and keep her burgeoning tribadism from her old-country Italian mother (the excellent Judith Knight Young), who just wouldn't understand. Maria immediately finds a cute girlfriend named Dani (Cathy Prince), and avoids the church so Father Mike won't ask why she isn't taking communion anymore. More random but unsurprising things happen, about which Maria complains.
With the old-fashioned attitudes of both immigrant Italians and the heavy Catholicism of the opening scenes, I initially assumed that the opening flashback scenes of the play were set in the 50s or 60s, but when Maria gets to college, Dani mentions working as a graphic designer and on the website, which would set it at least in the 90s... I looked at intermission, and actually the program lists the play as taking place "in the present", which would set the flashback scenes in the 90s. All the scenes set in Dani's childhood home could be at any time in the past- no one watches television, there's no Internet, everyone is dressed in vaguely 1970s clothing... It's possible that this is intended as a subtle commentary on the unchanging and rigid ideas of the Church (no character in the play has any costume changes except free-spirit Dani, who gets FIVE), but makes the where-and-when of it all a bit confusing for audiences.
Genre-savvy audiences might assume that Maria, once accepting her undeniably Sapphic nature, would break with the church, but Walker's play takes the daringly recidivist route of letting the Church "win". Dani eventually leaves Maria (again, randomly). Realizing this means that once she confesses her mortal sin and is in a state of grace, Maria can continue going to the Church she loves, apparently deciding to live a life of loveless and sexless service as the Church rules require, she does so. Since she wanted to be a nun as a child, I suppose this is meant to be a happy ending, but Maria's eventual conclusions might be a bit hard to swallow for those who don't play the Catholic game. This is not a play for the homosexual community; it is one for the Catholic community, and feels less like a realistic story than propaganda for the Catholic Church, especially since this play was chosen to be part of the Fringe Festival's FringeHIGH series: "a collection of boundary-stretching plays guaranteed to captivate and entertain NYC teens." In this time of "It Gets Better" a play that fully supports the idea that it doesn't and won't is disturbingly provocative. At least Maria doesn't shoot herself at the end for being "so damn sick and dirty", as Martha famously does at the end of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. I suppose that's progress of a sort.
New York International Fringe Festival
VENUE #6: The Living Theatre
Final performance Thursday the 25th @ 4:30