Gloria wants to perform one last can-can. She was a dancer when she was younger. When she danced, she felt truly alive. But rather than the polished show ponies she competed with at auditions, she was a donkey with long bony limbs and a long bony face. Never quite fitting in, she rejected the fripperies – the net, the chiffon – embraced by her fellow dancers and questioned, on repeat, why these things came to define the female gender.
Battling now with osteoporosis, joints that are too stiff and lungs that will never fully fill, she’s conscious that her days of doing the can-can are limited. If she falls down, she’s not sure that she’ll be able to get up. And then there’s her memory. She’s forgotten what she’s forgotten and in When I Fall…If I Fall, endlessly revisits the few things she can remember.
Claire Dowie’s script makes various smart observations about the gendered expectations that straitjacket our society. Gender doesn’t matter in childhood, she observes. It becomes irrelevant in old age. Why do we tie ourselves in such knots about it in the middle years? She muses on the petty pace of life when most two days are the same. Krapp’s Last Tape-style, she reflects on the tragedy of your best years being long since past – and how you fill your time productively knowing that, with only daytime TV (“TV for the dying”) for company.
Dowie is a compelling, contained performer, seducing us into her curiously claustrophobic world. Despite her cascading blonde hair and voluminous skirts, she is a fascinatingly genderless figure. Projections from director Colin Watkeys contrast Gloria’s dancing in her later days with her joyous celebration of life in her younger years. Possibly as deliberately dim as her memory, it would be helpful if we could see them a bit more clearly. Music is used nicely to retrace her waltz down memory lane. The point of this piece is probably that it meanders, but for the audience, it means the show takes a while to take shape.
This is a touching, thoughtful piece about the carelessness with which society discards the old, the absurd expectations we attach to gender, and the disturbing loss of self that comes with the loss of memory. We hope Gloria won’t fall – but we can be certain that there won’t be much of a safety net there if she does.