Andrew Pearson is a natural story teller, who holds the audience in the palm of his hand for the entirety of his ninety-minute dance-theater memoir Abbale. I caught the opening night of a three-evening run at ODC Theater June 15-17. Abbale, which means father (and perhaps also lover) in Hebrew, is a well-crafted and loving tribute to, among other things, fathers. As the show’s writer, choreographer and performer, Pearson shapes his solo around four men: himself, his father, his boyfriend Asaf, and Asaf’s father Shuki. He reflects on their relationships while also investigating how father figures, Daddies, and Daddy issues play out in gay culture.
One of the joys of this show about father-son relationships, is that the sons’ gayness isn’t a point of conflict, sorrow or hardship. Asaf grew up in Israel in the 70’s and 80’s. His father had a severe disability which required the whole family participate daily in the father’s care. American-born Pearson, fourteen years Asaf’s junior, is the apple of his father’s eye. His interest in dance is celebrated and encouraged.
Working with director Lisa Owaki Bierman, Pearson uses key props and unique movement styles to help us keep the storylines straight. When musing about his father, he uses a huge pair of brown leather brogues. He enters wearing them on his small feet. The scuffing drag and loud impact of their heavy soles is our first introduction to the challenge of literally and figuratively walking in a father’s shoes.
Later as a sound montage of cheery voicemails from his dad plays, Pearson, on his toes with knees bent, reels. With one shoe held to his ear phone-like, the other, tied to it, swings at the end of the laces, its weight causing Pearson to teeter. Sometimes a parent’s love is almost more than we can bear, throwing us off our center.
An overlarge khaki trench-coat represents Shuki. It is often draped over the back of a rolling stool, a handy stand-in for a man in a wheelchair. There is a touching scene where Pearson carefully folds the coat as we hear a tale of Asaf’s care for his father.
The choreography of the Asaf and Shuki sections is captivating. Pearson has created a gestural language so rich in texture and meaning that one feels as if it must be some official form of full-bodied sign-language. We come to recognize words like mother, one arm nested atop the other rocking back and forth in front of the belly, as the narration plays. Pearson’s danced phrases flow with the language with specificity and grace. The speed of the physical translation, or gestural sentences, is amazingly fast and clear, never muddled. There’s a narrative arc that draws us in and keeps us entertained and interested throughout. Pearson’s animation and the careful way that the script’s mood shifts using a comic aside to break the tension of a poignant truth, keeps things buoyant.
The moments when Pearson connects his young self with his gay adult identity are powerful. In one, as Pearson recounts being separated from his father at a county fair, we see the carousel turn. Pearson bobs on one leg, his other lifted and bent. His hands clench around a pole except for when he waves, presumably at his dad watching nearby. Designer Ric Zimmerman’s lights blink lending an atmosphere of a ride in motion, before a neon pink wash carries us and Pearson to the dancefloor of a gay club. Separated from Asaf in the crowded club, Pearson’s body gyrates to a much more mature beat. The full range of Pearson’s dancing and acting skillset is on display as he guides us back and forth between the two scenes.
The soundtrack of George Michael and Elton John songs provides a perfect throughline and a universal appeal to many generations of music lovers both gay and straight. The original musical arrangements and singing of Kevin DeKimpe and, John Lucido add interest and freshness to familiar lyrics.
One-person shows can be navel-gazing, but this one isn’t. Pearson disarms us with his self-awareness, pointing out that he likes to be the focus of attention. Acknowledging that while his intention had been to write a show about other people, it is still really about him, a man who despite his gratitude for all he has been given, remains more of a “taker” than a “giver.” We like him and want him to succeed.
Review by Jen Norris, published June 16, 2023 __________________________________________________________________ Production Credits Abbale (a dance-theater memoir) ODC Theater June 15 – 17, 2023 Written, Choreographed and Performed by Andrew Pearson Story Consultation by Ben Jehoshua Direction, Dramaturgy and Script Development by Lisa Owaki Bierman Musical Arrangements and Vocal Performances by Kevin DeKimpe, John Lucido George Michael and Elton John Additional Sound Design by Kevin DeKimpe Video Design by Ben Jehoshua Lighting Design by Ric Zimmerman Costume Tailoring by Foreste Jean Stage Management by Tiffany Sweat Additional Technical Support by Miles Berman