The Dance and the Railroad
Set upon a bleak mountaintop, "The Dance and The Railroad" tells the story of two men brought together by chance. Ma and Lone have recently immigrated to the United States. Their hope is to make their fortunes as tracklayers for the transcontinental railroad; hopes that wither with time.
The year is 1867 and the seasoned veteran Lone has been in America for nearly three years. Time has made him bitter and he sees his fellow counterparts as "dead men," without souls, purpose, or culture. Ma has recently arrived, still energetic and unburned by failed dreams. As he is eager to please, he assimilates quickly into his newfound group of friends.
On most days, Lone spends his free time reenacting a solo Chinese Opera; he is the director, writer, and sole star. Remnants of a distant youth, Lone practices in silence as he moves gracefully about the jagged rocks of the unforgiving "Gold Mountain." It is here that he finds solace and respite from the daily toils of being a laborer during the birth of the great American railroad.
Today, Lone has been spotted and followed by the curious Ma. Hiding behind a massive rock, Ma spies Lone as he whips his long singular braid into a frenzy. Ma is suddenly spotted, confronted, and dismissed by Lone for, in his eyes, Ma is one of the many "dead men." The "dead men" refers to the hundreds of men that have immigrated to America in hopes of earning a living as railroad workers.
To Lone they are dead inside for having abandoned their traditions, fully adopting the ways of a despised culture, and for no longer working for themselves but instead only for profit. Despite his assumptions of the men, Lone manages to take an interest in Ma.
This is the beginning of an unlikely friendship; a bromance that predates the term. Overtime, Lone trains Ma in the ancient art of Chinese Opera. It is within this shared interest that they have found common ground. Teacher and student take from each, one becoming more like the other with the passage of time.
The underlying theme of "The Dance and The Railroad" is the power of culture and identity. Through art, Lone manages to retain some sense of self. His daily routine becomes his source of resilience.
As for Ma, he takes courage from his relationship with his fellow workers, in the late night stories, drinking, and gambling. It is friendship and camaraderie that keeps him going. Each man identifies with something different and through their common interest they gain new respect for the other's personal identity.
Great praise is due to Mimi Lien for outstanding scenic design. Elegant and abstract, Lien has managed to effectively create the ambiance of an impenetrable mountainside. The audience fully understands the sense of proportion within the unforgiving environment.
Gold Mountain is a mistress that they must court; Lone is the experienced charmer, while Ma is still discovering her hidden appeal and challenge. Lien has embodied all of this nuance with an amazingly sculpted scene.
Despite the formidable talent behind and within this performance, it still manages to be forgettable. The pacing in the beginning is awkward, there is the sense that some deep meaning is attempting to come out, but what it is, the audience is left struggling to understand. The message is muddled throughout the performance and it is an effort, on the part of the audience, to make sense of the play's true meaning.
Its pacing is confounding and it does not begin to feel comfortable until Ma starts to share his personal story in the form of a Chinese Opera. This is where "The Dance and The Railroad" shows great form; the pacing, stylization, and acting all come together. If the play had started the way it ended, it would have made for a more enjoyable experience.
"The Dance and The Railroad" runs through Mar. 24 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. For more information or tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org.