SIX OBSERVATIONS ABOUT ‘SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS’

1. Richard Alfieri’s play about the relationship between a formidable Florida matron and a tart-tongued dance instructor touches on most of the major themes of life – love, death, sex and sexuality, politics, religion, honesty, disease, age, heartache, loss and loneliness. Perhaps a few too many for a mostly light-hearted comedy? You decide.

2. The opening night audience at the Ensemble Theatre clearly loved the show. There was lots of long-lasting laughter – including quite a few belly-laughs from your correspondent – and a standing ovation at the end.

3. It was suggested that “Dance Lessons” was perfect for the Montecito set. I don’t know whether that means we’ve been marginalized, insulted or just targeted because of all the wealthy widows and divorcees residing in the village, but no matter. Anyone can enjoy this mostly breezy comedy even if you don’t identify with the characters.

4. Veteran stage actor Joseph Fuqua is a fine actor, but he could have used some help from director Robert Grande Weiss in slowing down his pacing. I realize his character is supposed to be a Ritalin-challenged extrovert, but some of his more clever rejoinders came too fast to be believable, especially in the first few scenes, where the pacing and dialogue often felt more like a television sitcom than a theatrical play.

5. The magnificent set decoration might be worth the price of admission alone. Florida’s Gulf Coast sky seen through the set’s open window changed from brilliant pinks at sunset, to dark grays on an overcast day, to hues bathed in soft light on a full-moon evening. Be forewarned, you might miss a couple of lines just staring out the window.

6. You can get your money’s worth just from the one-liners. Two samples: “It’s such a relief to violate a few commandments while there’s still time,” and “That’s what you get when you marry outside of your gender.”

7. (Bonus – since there’s a bonus “lesson” in the play.) Can’t say whether this is a role Mary Jo Catlett was born to play, but she’s certainly ready for it now. After taking on parts as diverse as Ernestina in the original Broadway production of “Hello Dolly” (yes, opposite Carol Channing) to the housekeeper on TV‘s “Diff’rent Strokes” to the “roach lady” in the famous Roach Hotel commercials (she intoned, “Roaches move in but they don’t move out!”) to her current recurring gig as Mrs. Puff on TV‘s preschool cartoon “SpongeBob Squarepants,” Catlett dives into lonely Lily Harrison with an open heart and full commitment – and the result is a breathtaking, marvelous performance.

We talked to her briefly at the opening night reception.

Q. How do you feel now that the public run has begun?

A. I’m very glad it’s done. It’s a difficult play, a real mountain, since it’s just the two of us and we don’t want people to get bored.

Was learning the dances as hard as you originally thought?

A. No, not at all. (Choreographer) Cathy Rice is just brilliant, and she’s an old Broadway gypsy, as am I. Some nights we just talked and talked and then got around to the dancing. But it isn’t fun yet, either, because I’m still thinking what’s next, what are we doing in the next scene? And the costume changes are….well, hell. There are such major outfits, and the shoes, don’t get me started.

How is it working with Joseph Fuqua, who has so much experience in theater in our area?

I’ve known some of his work, and even saw him in “Streetcar Named Desire” at Rubicon. But we’d never met. Which was scary because if you don’t like the guy in this play, you’re really in trouble. But he’s wonderful. We’re staying at a beautiful house of a board member in Montecito, and it’s gorgeous. One night I was especially a little depressed about how it was going, and he said, “We get to go home to this sumptuous place with a pool and Jacuzzi. How bad could it be?” That gave me a big breath to keep learning the lines. He’s such a positive, wonderful fella.

What have you learned from taking on this role?

Maybe it’s time to retire (laughs). When I was young, I would count the lines and think, “Oh, I wish I had more. I want more.” But when I saw this script, the only thing I thought was, “How am I ever going to learn all these lines?!“ There’s so many I didn’t even dare count them. It was very hard, but it was a wonderful feeling to know that, my God, I can still do it. So maybe onward and upward. But if this turns out to be my swan song, I wouldn’t be unhappy. It’s such a lovely play.

(“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” continues at Ensemble’s Alhecama Theatre through July 23. Call 962-8606 for tickets and information.)

Theatrical Treats

Luncheon readings have been successful in other cities, said Montecito’s Elaine Kendall explaining why she wanted to try similar short plays here. If the opening event, which paired two short David Ives one-acts with a tasty buffet lunch at Victoria Hall late last month, is an indication of things to come, Santa Barbara might just join in the fun.

“We’re just trying to give people something to do on a warm summer mid-week afternoon,” Kendall says. “Santa Barbara really has no afternoon entertainment, unless you count the beach. I was shocked to hear from the Visitors Bureau that ninety percent of tourists say their favorite activity here is shopping. So we hope to attract some of them eventually. Also, lots of retired and other older people don’t like to drive at night, so it’s for them too.”

Kendall and her producing partner, Montecito attorney Jerold Oshinsky, chose wisely in selecting Ives’s “Mere Mortals,” a fantasy-filled conversation between three construction workers lunching on a girder high off the ground, and “Arabian Nights,” in which a translator distorts a conversation between and American tourist and the shop owner in a Middle Eastern bazaar. Both are terse, lively and fun, and if the total program was rather skimpy (less than half an hour), the future schedule calls for more substantial fare lasting an hour or more.

“We wanted to start off with a more manageable length, but the next one will be longer,” says Kendall, who pronounced herself satisfied with the turnout of about 50-60 people. “That’s not bad for the initial run,” she adds. “We’re grateful so many people responded and they all seemed to have a good time.”

The next program in the series combines Peter (“Equus”) Shaffer’s comedic “White Liars” with Tennessee Williams’s rarely produced “Mister Paradise” on July 19, followed on August 2 by the world premiere production of Kendall’s own “The Chameleon,” based on the public and private life of Judah P. Benjamin, a Confederate secretary of state who fled to England after the Civil War and established a career as a distinguished barrister.

“His private life was very secretive, and only a few fragments have ever been reported,” Kendall says. “But enough bits and pieces survive to put together this play.”

Meanwhile, Montecito is well-represented in the new productions. Both Kendall and Oshinsky live here, as do several of the actors for the first few plays. And the food for the buffet lunch – a selection of sandwiches, wraps, salads and veggies – all came from Montecito Deli.