The Old Soft Shoe Shuffle

Photo credit: Daniel Jaffe
Written by Christopher Ford and Dakota Rose
Directed by Dakota Rose
Presented by On the Rocks Theatre Company at Dixon Place, NYC
March 17-April 1, 2017

Dixon Place is a reliable venue for offbeat theater. If you're looking for, say, an earnest examination of twentysomethings trying to make it in the city, then it's probably best to look elsewhere. If, however, you're in the mood for sci-fi puppets or dance-filled reimaginings of Carroll's Wonderland, then Dixon Place has you covered. The latest of these unconventional offerings is FRED, a buoyant new comedy by Christopher Ford and Dakota Rose, creators of the recent The White Stag Quadrilogy.

FRED (Derek Smith) is a robot who began life as a pool vacuum and now spends his time keeping his inventor's widow, Diana (Shannon Holt), alive in a medically-induced coma since a long-ago stroke. FRED has decided to move with Diana from their home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she used to run a school of acrobatics and dance, to The Clam, a retirement community-cum-cruise ship orbiting Pluto. Unfortunately, The Clam is underfunded, understaffed, and underpopulated, but because of a contractual guarantee of live entertainment for the residents, green-skinned siblings Lance (Patrick Harvey), Karen (Rebeca Miller), and Gwen Kunzig (Michelle Uranowitz) remain on board. The Kunzigs have been trained since childhood to be one of the foremost Carpenters tribute bands, and their performances unexpectedly allow FRED an opportunity to reconnect with the woman who first recognized his evolving potential and whom he considers to be his mother.

At first, The Clam seems to trap the characters in a Godot-esque repetition of days structured by a series of loudspeaker announcements, most of which, due to the lack of staff, are no longer true. Meanwhile, the Kunzigs perform daily because they are obligated to, often to a single audience member. However, the play's arc turns out to be much more hopeful, while not trivializing the realities of having a seriously ill elderly parent and touching subtly on issues around memory and art. For instance, although FRED tries playing a Carpenters album for the comatose Diana, only the Kunzigs' live performance has any effect--not only is the live performance of someone else's work still art but it is also more effective than the recorded original. The Kunzigs' act, of course, depends on nostalgia, which FRED positions as a powerful force, both culturally and personally, but it also asserts that connection to the past should not occur at the expense of the future.

The past looms large in the production's affectionately retro aesthetics, from the big-eyed, lightbulb-topped FRED to the original-Star Trek-series-worthy Kunzigs and the palm trees and white folding chairs decorating The Clam. This sense of campy fun pervades FRED. Few plays have such entertaining transitions between scenes, and music director Andrew R. Butler manages to get a lot of laughs despite appearing only as the disembodied voice of the ship. Patrick Harvey, Rebeca Miller, and Michelle Uranowitz make an excellent comic trio while imbuing each Kunzig with a distinct personality, and Derek Smith successfully emotes (and, at one point, performs an audience-energizing dance number) while wearing what is essentially a metal can over his head. Shannon Holt has plenty of comic moments as well, but she also keeps her portrayal grounded in the pathos of Diana's situation. Even when she seems like her old self, Diana is never one-hundred percent lucid, and sometimes veers into anger and frustration, familiar ground for anyone who has watched a loved one age.

FRED and Diana's relationship takes the audience to an unexpectedly moving place at the play's climax, which then gives way to an uplifting sense of possibility. The Clam's loudspeaker likes to remind its residents to "Get out there and meet somebody." In the case of this play, that's great advice. Get out there and meet FRED. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler