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.