Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Last Vanity

Hips, breasts, butt, tummy, legs.

When you see a naked woman on stage, you take in a fantastically rich visual field.

When a man is naked onstage ... there's only one new piece of information.

Maybe that "rich visual field" is circumscribed by the cultural geography of censorship, but the difference between the sexes stands in any case. It stands like a proud, tall ... um.

Eyes up here, please.

Women deal with this all the time. Men ... only when they're trying to carry on a love scene in a play in front of 350 people, 8 nights a week, until May 9 -- get your tickets here!

Yes, I'm naked on stage for the third time in three years. Wish that meant I could say "by popular demand" but all three shows were in different corners of the country and all three shows were ... different.

In Sometimes a Great Notion, my character had to make a brief dash for his boxers after screwing his brother's wife. Three seconds, tops, in profile and in haste. Simple.

In Angels in America, I had to stand naked for an entire, decidedly un-sexy, scene while the nurse examines Prior's glands, lesions, and the two characters discuss the horrific side-effects of AIDS. Alienation effect, anyone? So more revealing because such a long scene, but I actually felt costumed by the fake lesions dappled on my body. Yes, all is vanity:

And now, in Itamar Moses's Completeness, my character strips following the sudden nudity of his date, the sexy, smart and beautiful Molly. The two characters stand in the blue light of night (or the blue light of some meta-god's petri dish experiment?) and then get into bed.

Someone once remarked that, like it or not, nudity on stage is a meta-theatrical moment because you suddenly realize you're looking at the actor and not the character. There's an implicit prudery to that truth, but only because sex is an unavoidably explicit action. As one essayist put it, "It is the most private thing we do and the most explicit thing we do." To the degree that we become the masks and costumes we've crafted to hide something else, nudity on stage has the power to perturb an audience.

Um, and the actor. Eyes up here, please. Oh wait. As I've already written, I'm not much for eye contact either, so ... I am literally and figuratively and symbolically exposed, yes?

I suppose -- all things being equal (ahem) -- male nudity isn't a meta-theatrical perturbation. Except in one crucial respect: it doesn't take a master Method actor to achieve the appropriate response to hot naked girl. Funny language, that: You can't "achieve" an erection because ... dude, it's not an achievement. Pretty straightforward phenomenon every other day of the week. So (all puns intended) why is it so hard for a paying audience?

This is the real reason you're looking at the actor, not the character. It's like seeing the bated sword in a choreographed stage fight. [INSERT SWORD = PHALLUS PUN HERE] One pretends past the danger to avoid killing the actor playing Claudius. And no one will enjoy a stage fight if they sincerely believe the actor is in danger (see under Taymor, Julie). Similarly, a naked dude on stage is in danger ... perhaps more so if he "surrenders to the moment" and sports a boner a propos to the scene.

What to do? Well, over-intellectualization is a kind of costume, so let's mend together, shall we?

Sex and desire didn't exist before the Fall. That only came when we started covering up. We were made to feel shame for stealing godly knowledge, but also for usurping godly powers of procreation and pleasure. Violate this compact, take off the fig leaf, do it in front of hundreds of fellow Eden exiles, and see what that does for your sense of sexual desire. Yes that's just a fancy way of saying "shrinkage happens" ... but we have language for the same reason we have clothing: to lie with style. As Dave Attel once put it, "premature ejaculation" is just a fancy way of saying "uuhh."

Another difference between naked lady and naked dude: Puritans and libertines both rail against the objectification of women, but both also take it for granted that men are routinely objectified. Perhaps further, that they should be objectified. Hell, we're eager to be objectified, to have the measure of our worth made so clear. [INSERT THESIS RE: OVER-COMPENSATION THROUGH MONEY, FAME, POWER, VOCABULARY HERE] When another Maureen Dowd asks "Are Men Necessary?" she thinks she's presenting a provocative trap for misogynists and father-worshipers everywhere. But for anyone who's had sex since age 24, this question prompts a sad laugh: of course we're not necessary. You're just now figuring that out? And necessary for what? More importantly: To what use might you put us? When we want to diminish a dude, we call him a "tool." So, I welcome the idea that we might not be so useful after all.

From it's giddy, heady, playful heart, Completeness asks a ton of heartbreaking questions about how one uses another person -- intellectually, emotionally, sexually -- to fix a prior or future problem. My character Elliot wants to be useful. He wants it so badly that he spends every conscious minute trying to craft a Master Skeleton Key to Everything [INSERT KEY = PHALLUS PUN HERE]. Meantime Molly uses one man ... to get over the last man ... to get over the man before that. Elliot the computer scientist must learn that his cybernetic skeleton key won't tell him who the right woman is. And Molly the experimental biologist must embrace the challenge of her greatest hypothesis:

What if there's a place in you that's only really touched when you get hurt? And
nothing else can touch you in that place. But certain things pretend they can.
So your choices are to believe until you can't
anymore and really hurt someone,
and I've really really hurt some people, or
to keep believing, to make yourself
believe, and then get hurt
yourself, again, in that same place?

I'm gonna wager our author Itamar already knows this, but how cool that the only italicized words in that passage are PRETEND and MAKE (BELIEVE)?

'Cause it's scary to be naked before the wrong person, never mind 350 of them, no matter how willing we both may be to pretend and make ourselves believe otherwise. So, dear audience, I love you and probably need you more than I know. I mean, I bare all, but you must bear it. I salute you. But forgive me if I don't ... um ... "salute" you during my big love scene. My need to hide in plain sight is one of the few forces stronger than my vanity. In a tragedy, those two forces would be equally matched -- they are opposite sides of the same Narcissus pool, after all. But for a romantic comedy like Completeness ... well ... anyone got any good fluffing tips out there?

It's funny because it's penis.


C.Ayala said...

You know, it's funny that you should highlight the difference between male and female on-stage nudity, because I saw Completeness yesterday (my first play, I might add), and in the scene with Molly's "sudden nudity" I was actually distracted by your character going over to the counter by the bed, so I completely missed Molly emerging from the bathroom. "Too much too soon"? More like "just enough, but too suddenly" =b

arun said...

nice blog
sincerely arun
expect less get real

Scott said...

Having seen the show last night at Playwrights', let me disuade you (and any reader) about this. Your performance is so freaking spot on that the "nakidity" is organic. You were amazing - and I used to review for a site in England and for Reviews Off Broadway . com - so I have seen plenty to compare (the acting not the goods). Although I used to bartend at Revovler in West Hollywood, so I have seen plenty of goods as well, and you were fine there also.

Anyway, the short answer is, I was taken the show in general and your performance in particular. I was with a friend (actor) who said that the genius of your performance is that when you started a scene youa cted in it like you didn't know how it would finish. It was that brazenly fresh and great.

Excellent job.

Karl Miller said...

Ha! Many thanks, Scott. And thanks to your friend as well. I think the "nakidity" works in the larger composition, too. Think we could use some more of it in theatre, in general ... Something categorically different about that and ... the rest of our porn/reality/2D culture.

Linda said...

Having also seen the show at PH, I agree with Scott about your wonderful performance. Itamar Moses writes such realistic sounding dialogue, but you still need good actors to do it justice and you and Aubrey Dollar were so natural. The scene where the two other actors come out during the fake technical difficulties feels like another point where everyone is exposed, though not literally, because it takes us out of the play and forces us to analyze what's happening. Out of curiosity, do you have any idea if most of the audience thinks it's a real technical problem or if they realize it's part of the play?

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prepri said...

Coming from Germany I am quite used to full-frontal nudity on stage in a theater. But your nude scene was different, because there was not just nudity but something very emotional with it. And your body is perfect, because you do not shave your body hair as most american actors do - as you can see in many Hollywood movies an U.S. TV series. When you took your shirt off I thought: wow, that's a hairy chest! And then even your boxer shorts came down and I enjoyed much what I saw: a nice penis with quite bushy pubic hairs! Wonderful, you can be proud of your body and you do not have to be shy to show it in front of 350 people. Thank you for that gorgeous play!

Anonymous said...

That's true: your chest hair and pubic hairs are wonderful! But what I am interested in: what do you to to prevent an erection on stage? I mean, there is a nude attractive woman in front of you and there are 350 people looking on your penis and asking themselves: does he get an erection? At least a little bit?

Anonymous said...

I also enjoyed to see your hairy bush!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately missed "Completeness". When do I have a chance to see you full frontal nude next time?

Lauren C said...

Sorry I missed this show ;) I recently saw you on television, and was very excited. You were the most talented actor I ever had the opportunity to work with.

-Lauren (backstage arcadia)