Throughout her one-hour, one-woman show Libby Skala spontaneously bursts into dance. She gleefully skips and twirls as she shakes a tambourine or a pair of maracas high above her head to whimsical cued melodies, the fringes of her long, coral-colored shawl blowing behind her. Even when the depth of the narrative limits her whirling and cavorting, she can't seem to remain still — her shoulders rocking in an undulating sway.
In her self-written-and-directed A Time to Dance, Skala captivates from the moment she leaps on stage to address the audience in a convincing Viennese patois. Although in limited and brief instances the script's subject matter drones a bit toward the less than compelling, her gift as a storyteller is undeniable and the intensity of her energy unrelenting.
Already three years running and a winner at the London Fringe Theatre Festival, the play is the follow-up to Skala's internationally praised solo production Lilia!, a tribute to the actress' Oscar-nominated grandmother. This time around she narrates the story of her quirky great aunt Elizabeth "Lisl" Polk, a modern dancer who fled a Hitler-controlled Austria for New York City during World War I, where she went on to shape creative dance therapy.
Skala fully embodies her grandmother Lilia's younger sister, surrendering herself to an uninhibited and borderline maniacal portrayal that captures her subject's spunky attitude and resilient spirit. The sheer physicality of her interpretation will inevitably have audiences contemplating how much cardiovascular training she endured to build up to her stamina-demanding hour-long performance. Certainly her inexhaustible range of eloquent facial expressions requires overly developed muscles.
Lisl (Skala) recounts her 20th-century-spanning life story, beginning with glimpses of a childhood in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her anecdotes, generously embellished with outrageous and (often unintentionally) comic commentary, continue with the Nazi occupation and her emigration to the United States and end with her retirement from dance at "four score and 10" years.
Alone against a bare stage, Skala engages the audience with her balance of composure and vulnerability. When imitating Lisl's modern dance teacher's reaction to the discovery of her secret ballet training, she howls and tosses her hair, ultimately lobbing a stream of spit onto the stage to the amusement of the audience. Their laughter quickly fades when she becomes Lisl again and hangs her head with such persuasive despair that they can only empathize with the sting of her mentor's rejection.
Through Lisl's riotous sense of humor and self-indulgent compulsion to make herself the center of every story, her frustration of living in the shadow of a movie-star sister comes across. She describes her Lilia's "beautiful, long, thin nose" in contrast to her own "potato nose." Every roll of her eyes and self-deprecatory quip exposes a tinge of her life-long insecurity. The honesty in this revelation of imperfection only serves to further endear us to this zany, electric woman.
Skala relishes the role, throwing her whole self into the incarnation of her beloved great aunt. Her commitment is infectious. By the show's conclusion she has the audience enthusiastically clapping to the rhythm of her final dance number. —Rachel Ward