On Thursday night I drove to the Wheeler Arts Community building in the Fountain Square neighborhood on the near south side of Indy to see the Indiana premiere of “bare.”
Now THIS is a high school musical. The honest kind that, for better or worse, won’t get produced in any high school that I know.
It is the story of a group of seniors at a Catholic boarding school who are going through a lot of the same things that teens everywhere are going through: figuring out how to be their authentic selves and what it means to be a friend, a lover, an adult.
Specifically it is the story of two young men, Jason (Justin Ivan Brown) and Peter (Brian Benson), who fall in love with each other in a culture that forbids it. They don’t love in a vacuum, of course, so their stories are tied to the stories of all the other people that are close to them. All of those other people – the adults as well as the teens – are dealing with their own issues as well, just like in real life.
Co-producer Daniel Robert said in his curtain talk with director Matt Cunningham and co-producer Zach Rosing that “Whether it’s race, ethnicity, size, sexual orientation…No matter what makes you feel a little different, we’re all still alike.” That’s why the name of their company is All Alike Productions, and why they chose this particular show to produce first. Robert said, “You’ll be able to relate to at least one person in this show.”
Usually when someone tells me in a curtain talk (or in the introduction to a story) how the piece is going to make me feel, it only makes me irritable. I want to say, “Don’t tell me what response I’m going to have. Just let me have it.” But the truth is, there are a lot of ways to relate to this piece.
I related most strongly to Nadia. Through her, I revisited all kinds of feelings and thoughts related to my size.
Nadia is the sarcastic, overweight sister of the sexy, popular Jason. April Armstrong plays her. Armstrong is physically beautiful. She also has a gorgeous voice, excellent comic timing, and a natural ability to connect with her audience, but she was not cast as the female love interest of this play, any more than Nadia was cast as Juliet in the school play within this play. I couldn’t help thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
On the other hand, I would have been upset if Cunningham had cast some skinny person to sing to me about what it’s like to be a “Plain Jane Fat Ass.” Armstrong brings a complexity to the role of Nadia that is very satisfying, especially since being fat, itself, is complicated.
For example, Nadia shares a room with the pretty and popular – and slim – Ivy (Kagiso Alicia Paynter.) Nadia appears to be self-confident, but secretly she steals Ivy’s tiny clothes and holds them up to her own body, wondering what it would be like to be able to wear them, i.e. – to be loved. When Ivy and the rest of the popular group invite Nadia to go with them to a rave (an illegal party), Nadia angrily tells them to leave her behind. Then she sings bitterly to us about her “Quiet Night at Home,” getting by with her Good Shepherd. There is also a note of unarticulated yearning in her voice, as if to say surely these are not her only choices: to go an exciting social situation that is inherently toxic or to be safe but lonely and bored?
Later in the play, when Ivy is pregnant and just about everyone has had his or her heart broken, Nadia jokes that maybe it’s better to be single after all. Everyone laughs, because it is a joke.
But her fat actually does protect her from being hurt. It actually does keep her from having to cope with the dangers of intimate situations, which is not always a bad thing.
Except, of course, that being fat doesn’t always protect her.
And even if it did, “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
The main theme of this show is the importance of being seen, heard, accepted, and loved for who we really are. Another theme is the importance of being who we really are, and how much courage that takes. I sympathized with every character in this show who says, in so many words, “But if I live my life as myself, if I tell the truth about who I am, I am afraid I will be rejected…by my friends, by my family, and by God.”
Nadia’s brother, Jason, does not have that courage.
However, the tragedy in this story is not only that Jason kills himself, but that when he does, Nadia is left with no one. Peter still has a mother who loves him, and Ivy still has her baby as a reason to keep going, but Nadia has only her fat. And the temporary, but still very real, comfort of food.
Baring her body from her fat is not as simple as eating less and moving more. This is what the people who say “You would be so much happier if you lost weight” don’t understand.
Speaking of suicide, the play within the play made me wonder what would have happened if Romeo had just waited 30 minutes. He and Juliet would both have had to grow up, which would have made for a much less dramatic story. But if I had been around back then, I would have been grateful for the chance to see what they would do with their lives. I wish Romeo had waited 30 minutes, and I wish Jason had waited at least until he graduated from high school.
Which is not to say that I don’t sympathize, even empathize, with the pain expressed by the characters in this show.
“bare” is the kind of musical that is more like an opera than a play in which the characters occasionally break into song. In other words, there are solos, duets, and group songs, but most of the conversation is sung as well. On Thursday night, the sound was very, very bad at first. Very bad. I couldn’t understand the words, the singers couldn’t find their keys because the musical accompaniment blurted in and out and got distorted, and everyone around me shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I thought, “Oh, crap” and wondered if I could get away with not writing about this show.
But the director/sound technician, Matt Cunningham, must have thought, “Please, God,” and God must have been listening, because gradually, after three or four songs, the bugs in the sound system worked themselves out. By the end of the first act, listening to the show was a pleasure.
(The Band includes Nick Herman on piano; Chris Schoepp on keyboard; Wes Cate on guitar #1; Eli Richy on guitar #2; Brian Raab on bass; Andrew Davis on drums; Andrew Elliott on cello; and Melanie Vandenbark on flute. Music direction by Nick Herman. Sound design by Tom Dobes, but in all fairness to him, I don’t think the sound system at Wheeler is in very good shape.)
And in the meantime, the chemistry between the actors carried it.
The desire that Jason (Justin Ivan Brown) and Peter (Brian Benson) have for each other is somehow both steamy and innocent – an intoxicating combination. In high school, I would have been one of the many girls crushing on Jason, but both young men are hotties in their own ways. Their friendship and their anguish are realistic as well.
The actor who plays Matt (David Ross) is a hottie, too, and Matt has a good heart. I wished Ivy could see that and love him back. However, I sympathized with Paynter’s portrayal of Ivy as a sexually active girl who falls in love with the wrong boy and who lets drugs and alcohol impair her judgment. Matt and Ivy’s duet, “Portrait of a Girl,” is eloquent.
J. Tyler Whitmer plays Lucas the drug dealer with a disturbing joy that sometimes even translates into impressive gymnastics.
In fact, all of the student characters are played by strong singers and dancers. Each performer portrays his or her unique character with wit and specificity. The student characters include Lucas and Matt plus Alan (Andrew Elliott), Rory (Linda Heiden), Tanya (Christina Humphrey), Diane (Susie Mohr), Zach (Brion Monroe), and Kyra (Briana Walker.)
They are all involved with a student production of “Romeo and Juliet” directed by the outwardly grouchy but ultimately supportive Sister Chantelle (Jorie Johnson.) One of the highlights of this show is when Sister appears to Peter in a hilarious dream disguised as Mary, the mother of God. She sings in a no-nonsense way to him to call “911! Emergency” and tell his own mother the truth about who he is. In other words, to come out to her about his homosexuality.
Mary has two feisty angels as back-up, played by Christina Humphrey and Briana Walker. They wear white, feathered wings and huge, white, afro wigs. (Costumes by Justin Ivan Brown, with assistance from Juli Inskeep, Jorie K. Johnson, and Terrisa J. Flowers.)
I enjoyed all of the dancing, but the dancing that the students do in the “Romeo and Juliet” segments is especially lovely. (Choreography by Matthew Cunningham.)
Although I related most to Nadia, I also related to the two other adult characters: Peter’s mother, Claire (Juli Inskeep) and the Priest (John Phillips.) I am very glad that the director cast them with age-appropriate actors.
When Peter comes out to Claire he says, “I’m not asking you for solutions. I’m asking you to be my mom and my friend.” Ultimately, Claire is able to do that, I think: to love her newly bare, young adult son as much as she loved him when she had just given birth to him as a bare baby. But I also sympathized with her instinct to rescue her son from any hardship or pain. Inskeep’s rendition of (where was the) “Warning” is heartfelt and powerful.
I also got the feeling that the creators of this show (book by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo, music by Damon Intrabartolo, lyrics by Jon Hartmere) wanted to say “Up yours!” to the Catholic church for its stance on homosexuality and its hypocrisy in general. That’s fine, but I appreciated that John Philips plays the Priest as gentle and kind as well as firm, and that the Priest is sincerely compassionate even in his helplessness to go against what he believes.
The set makes creative use of the long and narrow performance space in the Wheeler building. The program doesn’t say who designed the set, but it was painted by Brian Benson, Justin Ivan Brown, Matt Cunningham, and Briana Walker. Rob Leffler was the head carpenter. Assistant director/light board operator Amanda Salazar and Justin Ivan Brown were in charge of the props, which include a funny garland made of panties. A large, white-draped cross is prominent but hangs at the very back of the space, as distant from the audience as God seems to the students. Cast members carry church benches, dorm beds, and other set pieces in and out.
The audience sits on three sides of the stage. Director Cunningham’s lighting design is nimble, and his clever blocking of the show means that any seat in the house is a good one.
(However, if you sit on the top row of one of the risers, be careful not to wiggle around much. There is no lip to keep the chairs from sliding over the back edge!)
I don’t want to end without mentioning that there a lot of funny lines in this piece. Some of them come in completely unexpected places, which makes them even funnier.
At intermission Kathy Watson introduced herself to me. I enjoyed talking with her about the challenges and satisfactions of doing props for a show. She was the properties master for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Indianapolis Civic and “A Few Good Men” for Main Street Productions at the Westfield Playhouse. She is getting ready to direct “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Westfield later this year.
As I write this, the Saturday performance of “bare” is sold out, but there is one more performance tomorrow (Sunday, July 27, 2008) at 3:00. Please call Amanda at 317-340-5008 to make a reservation.
If you go, be sure to park in the NON-fenced police parking lot across the street from the grocery store, rather than in the grocery store lot or in the gated police lot right across from the Wheeler front door. The sign on the Wheeler door only says to park in the police lot. Several of us came out of the show Thursday night to find our cars locked up behind the fence.
Also, the door to the Wheeler building sticks, so if it seems locked, just keep pounding until someone at the ticket table far inside hears you and lets you in. Don’t worry: it will be worth it.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com