Review of Stark Naked’s ‘Body Awareness’

3 Nov

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By JOHN DeMERS

Stark Naked Theatre’s season-opening production of Body Awareness is that hat trick of a production: skillfully chosen, sensitively directed and masterfully acted. It is one quirky bucket of weird that also hints at the universal and timeless with every breath it takes.

As directed by Stark Naked co-founder Philip Lehl, Annie Baker’s comedy-drama about life in a small New England college town serves up one juicy surprise after another. Since all the characters are smart and witty, that means all Baker’s dialog gets to be those things too: a largely unforced series of scenes that usually put any two of the play’s four characters in a room to talk about stuff, punctuated by the public comments of one character, an extremely “liberal” college psychology professor introducing guests at the school’s annual Body Awareness Week. That character alone is worth the price of a ticket, since she’s forced by her job to talk about human history and relationships even though she seems morally outraged by virtually everything that happens within them. Still, miraculously, the character is neither 100% cartoon nor entirely unlikable.

So… the college professor Phyllis (played wonderfully by Pamela Vogel) is a lifelong lesbian in a committed relationship with Joyce (Kim Tobin), a high school teacher who was married earlier, giving birth to a son. That son Jared (in a remarkable performance full of tics, outrage and hilarious non sequitors by Matt Lents) seems quite a handful, since he lives in the house with them at age 21 and may or may not have a condition called Asperger’s, indeed may or may not be what he invariably calls a “retard.” Still, things work more days than not – until, in that grand Chekhovian tradition, somebody else shows up.

Frank, a good-looking straight man with a wicked wit and no small ability to cut through carefully orchestrated BS, shows up with his photography exhibit for Body Awareness Week and even stays at the women’s house. Unfortunately for all this chemistry, Frank takes black-and-white pictures of naked women, ranging from girls to senior citizens. Joyce declares the photos beautiful, liberating and clearly, from early on, fantasizes about posing for him. Phyllis, predictably, sees every act of exploitation of women and other minorities since time began in every snap of Frank’s shutter.

Body Awareness seems to understand and even like each of its four characters. Drake Simpson fills Frank’s shoes with particular skill, letting us believe he might be a pervert or at least might be doing something perverted. Yet he’s smart, charismatic and exactly, at times, what Jared needs more than anything, a real live actual male. The pivotal scene in which Frank tells Jared what he needs to do to grow up is wildly off-color, hilarious and true. The fact that a woman wrote these lines makes it her own nuanced but angry plea after no doubt meeting and/or dating “boys” who have refused to do so.

As in Chekhov, there may or may not be anything life-changing happening within this play’s uninterrupted 90 minutes, all made painless to watch by sets and props by Jodi Bobrovsky and lighting by Clint Allen. It’s the little moments that seem to matter in Body Awareness, the little shifts and temporary standoffs, that mark our race’s wobbly stumble toward being, and occasionally even acting, human.

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