Tender truths set to do-si-do disco

Times Staff Writer

For kids, each day tends to be experienced with the dial cranked to top intensity.

That's certainly how it goes for the 14-year-old protagonists of "Teaching Disco Square Dancing to Our Elders: A Class Presentation."

Kenny's shoulders slouch beneath what must seem like the full weight of the world. His pal, Martin, is trying to talk him out of this funk. Sure, they've been assigned "lame" oral presentations. But they have permission to combine projects -- they can work together.

Larissa FastHorse's one-hour, five-minute play, geared toward young audiences but filled with enough humor and emotion to keep adults fully engaged, is being given a professional developmental production by the Native Voices program at the Autry National Center. The Santa Monica-based writer addresses a number of Native American social issues, but her message will resonate with anyone who's ever felt alone in a sometimes harsh, ostracizing world.

Kenny is supposed to present a do-it-yourself disco-dancing demonstration; Martin is to teach square dancing to seniors. They soon realize they're going to need a female dance partner. Fate provides them Amanda, the class klutz.

The laughs that greet this production, directed by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, indicate how well the adult actors mirror kids' postures and vocal mannerisms. As Kenny, Noah Watts is all doom and gloom, grousing from inside his hoodie. Even-tempered Martin, played by Robert Vestal, instinctively looks out for others. With Kenny, that usually involves playful shoving and wrestling, to jolt him out of his moods. Amanda (Tonantzin Carmelo) is the very picture of distracted awkwardness, at one point appearing unknowingly with the handle of her big pink roller-backpack extended, like a picture frame, above her head.

The daily direness of early teendom is amplified for these three by some truly worrisome factors, including parental alcoholism, a tendency toward stoner oblivion and the psychic damage inflicted by relentless teasing and crude sexual advances. Fortunately, the kids have a grandmotherly presence (LaVonne Rae Andrews) watching over the unfolding drama in Kenny's basement (simply but clearly evoked by Susan Scharpf's set design).

FastHorse's storytelling sometimes feels compressed, jumping on to a new topic before resolution has been achieved in its predecessor. Some of this is no doubt due to the need for brevity if the play is to become the sort of traveling school show that it very easily could be. (At the Autry, at least 1,400 students will experience the show at weekday matinees presented in addition to the weekend public performances.)

A bit more homework awaits the writer, but she's headed toward an ace project with this demonstration that life is something we're destined to live together, so we'd better work as a team to make the best of whatever comes.




'Teaching Disco Square Dancing to Our Elders'

Where: Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 2

Price: $20; 12 and younger, $12

Contact: (866) 468-3399, www.ticketweb.com

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