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A dancer steps into 'The Rape Play'

Amy Smith, as Jane Fonda, lends the controversial work her humor.

There's theater, dance, dance theater, musical theater, physical theater, and variations with multimedia and new media. The lines differentiating them have been blurring throughout the past century, especially in the last 30 years or so. And in Philadelphia the pairings and sharings among disciplines have blended in some surprising ways, among them

That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play

, which Theatre Exile opens here this week - with a dancer in a major role.

When Sheila Callaghan's controversial play premiered last year in New York, it was variously reviewed as tricky and darkly funny or raunchy and only partly successful. It begins with two women in a hotel who entice an anti-abortion crusader into their room and murder him; the scene is immediately replayed with two men who kill a hooker. For the rest of the play, Jane Fonda flits in and out of these scenes like a misguided Tinker Bell, sprinkling feel-good happy dust over the carnage.

Joe Canuso, director of Theatre Exile, is presenting the play's local premiere in Christ Church's spiffed-up Neighborhood House theater, with Amy Smith as his Jane Fonda, who links the other four characters and the different worlds they present and represent.

One in each gendered pair is a writer who riffs on the headlines du jour. Because the writers use essentially the same dialogue, the results get mashed and rehashed to raise interesting, timely social questions about rape, violence, male/female perceptions, and, most of all, how those themes are represented in the media, from television to video games. "Pretty Pretty feels very much like you're surfing the Net," said Canuso. "It's not linear info - it just keeps looping around."

A dancer/choreographer, Smith is a founder and codirector of the Headlong Dance Theater. She lives in a geodesic dome with her rock-musician husband, Rich Kaufman (of the '80s band Electric Love Muffin), and their two children. And though the diminutive and sprightly comedic performer may be an unlikely Jane Fonda, she's a strong choice for this part.

"I read the play and thought it would be a challenge," said Canuso. "It has strong issues but it's also very funny." And for the Fonda role, "I immediately thought of Amy, who is very physical.

"She speaks with her body but she's also iconic in the theater and dance community here. Before there was New Paradise Laboratory and Pig Iron, there was Headlong," said Canuso. "And before that there was Ellen Forman, who, had she lived, might have pushed those boundaries with her BodyLanguage projects. Ellen would have made a great Jane Fonda, but Amy is the one who brings a wink every time she comes on stage."

Theater audiences will remember Smith as Ivona in Theater Exile's production of Princess Ivona, or in 1812 Productions' Suburban Love Songs, which won a Barrymore for Best Ensemble. She is beloved by dance fans for her many roles in Headlong Dance Theater's wacky yet often challenging works since the company came to Philadelphia in 1993. In Hotel Pool she blithely takes a dip in full business dress, as if that's simply what one does. To find her equal in her earphoned explorations in Take Three or her reactive moves in Car Alarm you'd have to go way back to a physical, gawky comedian like Imogene Coca and combine her with, say, a more recent one - Amy Sedaris. But Smith has a female deadpan that is all her own.

She had been wanting to do another play, she said, but "I'm not hooked up in the theater audition world in that way." So when Canuso called and asked if she'd like to play the Fonda role, she said, "I love Jane Fonda, and once I read the script, I knew I had to do it."

When Headlong arrived in Philadelphia in 1993 from its gestation at Wesleyan University, Smith and cofounders Andrew Simonet and David Brick served as instigators, mediators and, in general, giddy upenders of all things dance and theater. They were not only fun and funny, but inclusive, gregarious, verbal, and above all, smart. As they had been to Group Motion three decades before, many in the dance community were drawn to Headlong, and soon some in the theater world were as well.

Canuso formed Theater Exile in 1996 not long after Headlong found its foothold here. His daughter, another highly comedic dancer, Nichole Canuso, has also been an integral part of Headlong. Companies like Exile, Pig Iron, and Headlong - which share a fondness for both narrative and movement - have risen in more or less the same time frame, and given her stage presence, acting is a natural progression for Smith.

In her previous theater work, she's been seen but not often heard. "But for Fonda I had to memorize lines, which I've never had to do before. Give me a movement phrase and I can remember it," she said. "But these lines are hard, because it's not dialogue where someone gives you a cue and you respond."

The lines between dance and theater have softened, and while they haven't yet been entirely blurred, the collaborations have been healthy for both - and a useful experience for crossover artists like Smith.

"Part of the difference between working in dance and in theater is that [in theater] the script is already written, so that you're working more as an interpretive artist than a generative artist," she said. ". . . You have to figure out how to slide yourself into an existing structure and find the psychology of the character, rather than inventing it yourself."