Libby Skala based her first solo play, Lilia!, on the life of her late grandmother, the well-known Hollywood actress Lilia Skala. In her wonderful new show, A Time to Dance, she channels her great-aunt, Lilia's younger sister Elizabeth ("Lisl") Polk, who, while attaining less renown, lived a life just as long, eventful, and interesting, if not more so. Out of the 201 productions in this year's New York Fringe Festival, it's one of the small number of must-sees.
Having experienced just about all of the 20th century – both in timespan and in all it had to offer – the half-Jewish Lisl can almost be said to embody the century itself. As Ms. Skala tells it, before becoming a dance therapy pioneer in New York, Lisl grew up in Austria, was sent to Denmark for safekeeping during World War I, contracted and beat tuberculosis, got kicked out of a modern dance studio for the sin of studying ballet, and managed a harrowing (and apparently also magical) escape from the Nazis.
Of course, many people live interesting lives, but few have a descendant as talented and ambitious as Ms. Skala to celebrate them. That she is a confident and graceful dancer is clear from the nearly constant movement she weaves through the hourlong monologue. But what makes the show such a charming entertainment, aside from the meat of the story itself, is her remarkable skill as a comic actor. Pouting, marveling, dancing, raging, worrying, dancing, beating time to the music (from recordings produced by Lisl herself for her dance therapy), mugging, miming, marrying, divorcing, dancing some more, and even finding a kind of true love (in an unexpected but soul-satisfying fashion), the character and the actor fuse until we just about believe that Lisl herself, thick Austrian accent and all, is before us, telling story after story for us to laugh and wonder at.
In a way, it's an old-fashioned biography. Take an interesting life; tell it from the start – Lisl's premature birth and surprising survival – to nearly the end; and allow the audience to marvel at its foreignness while recognizing its universality. A Time to Dance is truly uplifting without being at all saccharine, and that is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.