Regional Reviews: Chicago
Strip/Tease and Altered Ego
Two productions, Strip/Tease and Altered Ego, opened at Chicago's Bailiwick Theatre last week, and both are interesting voyages into impressive gay theatre. The first is a two-character play about the relationship of a theatre director and one of his students, the second is basically a monologue delivered by porn star Will Clark. Artistic Director David Zak is to be applauded for mounting both of these productions at the Bailiwick, which has grown in artistic integrity since its beginning in 1982. These two plays and future productions After Dark and Servicemen in January are part of Bailiwick's Out All Year series.
Strip/Tease is an intriguing play written by Neal Weaver, who is a graduate of the School of Speech and Theatre at Northwestern University and has worked in and around theatre for more than forty years. The play follows the emerging relationship between a gay theatre director (Dennis Murphy) and one of his students (Chris Kossen). Strip/Tease focuses on a subject that I thought could never be explored in theatre: the relationship between nudity onstage and the value of artistic expression. When I think of "nudity" in the theatre, it brings forth images of the cheap ribaldry of Oh, Calcutta! in the 1970s, the obligatory nudity in a production like Hair and various other attempts, such as in Bent or the musical comedy The Full Monty. Nudity in the theatre, at least to this reviewer, has always been an attempt to cash in on the values of the show and to exploit it in order to sell tickets.
In this production, however, there is a logical attempt to explore the subject of nudity in the theatre in a cohesive two-act play structure. Two characters emerge on a bare stage (resembling the bare stage of a theatre), meet and begin to unfold the frustrations and problems they have faced in life. Although sometimes the interaction becomes repetitive and weaves in and out of focus, Strip/Tease is an absorbing production. Both actors do strip naked during the course of the show, but Zak's direction and the script avoid the sheer titillation or voyeuristic prompting that such an encounter might produce.
In act one, we meet the director who is working on a play supposedly about the merits of nudity in the theatre. Enter the actor, who has been taking the director's class but can't afford to continue it because of monetary constraints. A simple suggestion. Will the straight actor pose in the nude in the privacy of the director's domain (the stage) so that the director can explore the reactions and the inner-self produced by appearing nude on stage?
The actor reluctantly agrees and begins to participate in a series of "exercises" which require him to perform a series of tasks involving taking on different personalities while in the buff and to participate in several improvisational situations. Through these, the actor reveals not only his handsome body, but his life history. The director begins to elevate the element of the actor's nudity to almost Christ-like dignity and power. He begins to reveal his own past homosexual history, especially his relationship with a porn star, and the audience ultimately learns the meaning of the term "strip/tease." Is it merely an artificial act used for attraction or is there some power and force that can fulfill a life when they are totally stripped of any costume or outer facade?
By the end of act one, the actor has recited two powerful monologues (one from Hamlet and the other from Christopher Hampton's Total Eclipse) and realizes the powers gained from stripping naked in front of the director.
Some of Weaver's writing becomes forced, repetitious and corny (the actor asks, "Am I merely here because you are lickin' your chops"?) But by the time act two opens, we realize the seriousness of the subject matter. Roles are reversed and the actor forces the director to go through the same form of "exercises" that were afflicted on him. By the end of the play we learn that both characters have shed their resentments towards each other and their lives, and "stripped" themselves of their inner fears. Nakedness is no longer a "tease" but it has brought them together. They share a mutual bond in their love for each other.
Zak's production is full of images. There is coping and loving as well as rejection and self-denial shared by both performers whether they are clothed or not. Much of this would seem contrived if it weren't for the presence of the two leading actors. Chris Kossen is outstanding as the actor. He starts off with the innocence of a boy from the "hicks" who has been rejected by his girlfriend and evolves into a character who can share his vulnerability with the director's commands in the two monologues he recites naked, emotional and totally in control of himself. Here is an actor who can explode with intensity concerning his own sexuality, and at the same time retreat into his own self-awareness as the play continues.
Dennis Murphy, as the director, has the most difficult part. He must project the image of being the instructor, the professional, while hiding his true love. Murphy's humble attempt to follow his own principles by letting the actor humiliate him in act two shows the actor's strength and talent. His recitation of a Shakespearean sonnet as he undresses is a poignant moment.
Strip/Tease is not merely a cat and mouse game. Zak's production is simple in concept and staging. The seemingly minor technical aspects (lighting by Dennis Remer) and production design by Zak and Remer accentuate the script that Weaver has written. I walked away from the play "thinking," and to me, that is what good theatre is all about.
Strip/Tease plays at the Bailiwick Theatre, 1229 West Belmont, Chicago, through November 17th. Tickets can be purchased by calling (773)-883-1090.
Altered Ego, on the other hand, needs no plot to set the premise of the production. Here is a first hand account of the ascendancy of Will Clark, modern day porn star, who has morphed from a Northwestern Theatre School theatre major graduate into a porn star. Clark is here, relating his past experiences in a "stream-of-consciousness" format. His narratives are excellent. I don't know if his comments are scripted or addressed by the audience's reactions.
Clark relates how he grew up in a small Wisconsin town, abused by his brother and how he gradually made the trek to New York City and Los Angeles where he became a stripper, escort and ultimately a porn star. There is no pretense in his story. Clark is candid, graphic and truthful in relating his highs and lows. Following his porn career, Clark reveals that he fell into a relationship and developed several yearly fundraisers that are devoted to AIDS.
Dressed simply, Clark immediately establishes a rapport with his audience. Here is a wonderful performer who feels comfortable and natural with his remarks. He looks back on his career in the porn industry with much reflection and reveals a good deal of what goes on. It's almost like he is giving advice to a friend. His conversation is intimate ... he manages to create an entire persona that we admire by the end of his hour-long show.
There is an attempt after the show to answer audience questions, which are very revealing not only of Clark, but also the audience!
Altered Ego continues at the Bailiwick October 25, 26 and 27 at 8 PM. Tickets are available by calling (773)-883-1090.