Monday, August 25, 2014

The Naked Truth

Theater Critic Rosalind Friedman ends her review of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Things We Do For Love” (see ‘Current Reviews’ on the Connecticut Critics Circle web site), which is running at the Westport Country Playhouse, by commenting on the nudity (actually, it’s semi-nudity and feigned intercourse) in the play. She notes: “This trend [of stage nudity] is not a good one. If a play is well-written, let it stand on its own. Fully clothed!!”

I both agree and disagree.

As sophisticated as we may think we are, seeing an actor nude on stage still brings us up short. Unless we are naturists, we are not used to seeing the naked human body outside of the confines of our own homes (or when some of us surf the Internet in search of stimulation). Thus, it is the theatrical form of the exclamation point and, as we were all taught somewhere along the way, that particular piece of punctuation should be used sparingly (unless, of course, we are texting or tweeting – then, OMG!!!!!! all rules are off).

I would suggest that there is the right time to bare it all…and the wrong time, and all too often directors do succumb to the gratuitous gesture…because ever since “Hair” and “Oh! Calcutta! (note the exclamation points), they can. However, nudity, used wisely, can enhance the theatrical experience…and make a moment riveting.

In her complaint, Friedman references several recent productions. She notes the staging of “Song at Twilight,” which first appeared up at Hartford Stage and then was re-staged at the Westport Country Playhouse, both boardings under the direction of Mark Lamos, WCP’s artistic director. In both cases, there are two mimed vignettes featuring two semi-nude (and then nude) men embracing. The nudity itself was, at least for me, not off-putting; what bothered me was that it drew attention away from what was happening on stage (especially in the final moments of the second act). To W. C Fields’ famous quote – “Never work with animals or children” – might be added: “…or nude actors. The staging also seemed to disrespect the audience, not by presenting nudity but assuming that the main character’s thoughts could not be divined without the help of visual aids.

Friedman also cites another Playhouse production, “Nora,” Ingmar Bergman’s take on Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll House,” directed by David Kennedy. She admits that she did not see the production herself but quotes another theater critic, Irene Backalenick, that there was “’gratuitous frontal nudity.’” Well, there was, and it was gratuitous because it was making a statement that the dramatic thrust of the play simply did not support. It was an exclamation point where a comma would have sufficed, or, to quote T. S Eliot, the show should have ended “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

And yet…there have been recent moments of on-stage nudity that have worked. I will reference two productions up at TheaterWorks: the first “Take Me Out,” about a pro baseball player coming out of the closet, and the second, “Tryst,” dealing with a young woman taken in by a murderous con artist. The staging of the baseball play is an argument both for and against stage nudity, for there were several moments (a team shower scene the chief among them) that would have easily fallen under the category of “gratuitous,” and yet, in the second act, there is another shower scene that absolutely demands that the two actors be naked, for nakedness (physical, psychological and emotional) is what this scene is all about. In other words, the dramatic moment justifies…actually demands…the nudity.

As for “Tryst,” the play was first seen in Connecticut at the Playhouse and then re-staged (with the same cast) at TheaterWorks. In the final moments of the play, the young woman who has been (or allowed herself to be) drawn into the spider’s web woven by a lethal Lothario, is strangled in a bathtub. The TheaterWorks staging has the actress appear nude before she steps into the tub, emphasizing her fragility and her willingness to accept whatever is to follow. The moment is riveting. The nudity enhances the theatrical experience.

The simple fact is, nudity on stage commands, no, demands attention, and it should be used sparingly. A director should not ask for a strobe effect when a follow spot will suffice, and a director should also honor his or her audience’s ability to imagine…what? Well, in the (implied) rape scene near the end of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” should a director have Stanley strip Blanche naked before he rapes her, or should the audience fill in the details? Which would you rather see…on the stage and in your mind? Which image, real or imagined, is more horrific?

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