CAMBRIDGE — Quincy Beth Harris is 11 years old. She’s very bright, particularly in math. But her mother is not always there for her, and her father is not there at all. This could be the script for a generic ABC “After School Special,” but at Oberon, it’s only the starting point for “The Shape She Makes,” a complex and rewarding theater-dance piece that asks the question “Who determines who we are?”
“The Shape She Makes,” in its world premiere presentation from the American Repertory Theater, is the offspring of Susan Misner and her partner of 15 years, Jonathan Bernstein. Misner has danced on Broadway and in the film version of “Chicago,” but she’s also an actress who’s been in “One Life to Live” and currently stars in the FX TV series “The Americans.” Bernstein has directed at the Williamstown Theater Festival and been a supervising director on Broadway.
Sara Brown’s set encloses the playing space — a mottled floor — with bleacher seats on three sides. It has the feel of a high-school basketball game, except for the Oberon bar, which forms the fourth wall. As you enter, you’re handed a big red and white “Hello, my name is” badge bearing the Brackstone Testing Incorporated logo and invited to fill it in. A Brackstone employee, Sheryl J. Baskin (Nina Goldman), welcomes you. It will eventually become clear that you’re there to honor the only eight individuals — two of them being Quincy (13-year-old Needham resident Sydney K. Penny) and her father, Bernard (Seán Martin Hingston) — who’ve ever made a perfect score in the 75 years of the national Brackstone math contest. One of the questions, as recorded in the program, reads, “Show how to travel every point on a sunflower using only a prime number of steps,” so you know Quincy and her dad must be pretty special.
The program isn’t handed out till the end of the evening, however, so you have to play close attention to the interweaving dance of past and present. Bernard, who is an alcoholic, left the family when Quincy was 2, and when he comes back, nine years later, Louise (Misner) tries to drive him away by passing off a one-night stand, Henry (Michael Balderrama), as her boyfriend. Misner also plays Louise as a frail older woman with a daughter, Ms. Calvin (Finnerty Steeves), who’s looking to get a post as a substitute teacher. You’re meant to ask yourself whether Ms. Calvin, who invites her students to come up with “fat” names for her, is the woman Quincy has grown into, and if so, why.
The dance component, which Misner choreographed, is gestural and often mimes what the characters are remembering. At times the actors play furniture; Balderrama is amusing as a cupboard door that won’t stay shut. Louise has a wistful, graphic pas de deux with Bernard and a not so wistful pas de trois with Bernard and Henry; another sequence suggests that Ms. Calvin has been in a mental institution. But it’s the writing and the acting that shape “Shape.” Penny is a terrific young Quincy, formal and yet effervescent. Hingston is an attractively kind, solicitous Bernard who never seems likely to stay sober; Misner is an embittered young Louise and a cantankerous older one, wrinkling her face and twisting her hands. Steeves’s Ms. Calvin, who’s forsaken a life of her own to live with her mother, appears both enchanted and trapped by her childhood.
Benjamin Howes has a nice comic turn as an assistant principal who can’t finish a sentence or wait for an answer. The remaining subsidiary roles are one-dimensional, a disappointment but hardly a surprise in an evening that runs just 90 minutes. And the music, by Julia Kent and Son Lux, is mostly a background presence. The screen in front of the bar bears watching, however: when it’s not displaying mathematical equations, you might catch phrases like “Good-bye-bye” and “milk and dairy” that will turn up onstage. And if what turns up at the end, as Ms. Calvin addresses the Brackstone audience, seems a pat answer, what counts is the human shape that’s been given to the question.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com
Correction: An earlier version, incorrectly referred to Sara Brown and Sarah Cubbage in the review box.