A daringly naked exploration of body image, love and friendship.
by Joel Benjamin
Blessed Unrest, the adventurous theater company is currently in residence at the New Ohio Theatre in the West Village, presenting Body: Anatomies of Being, a daring examination of body image and its effect on our lives. Conceived and directed by Jessica Burr, with a text by Matt Opatrny (in collaboration with the cast members), Body uses the daring device of nudity—stark, unembarrassed and total—to create a sense of vulnerability—in every sense of that word.
Body begins with a visual joke to help slice through any discomfort for the audience and the actors. The cast enters stark naked, except for one, middle-aged but fit Martin (Darrell Stokes, earnest and real) who is dressed in a business suit which he quickly sheds to model nude for Francis (Nathan Richard Wagner, finding the essence of a bearded artist) and his very supportive wife, Helen (Natalia Ivana Escobar, admirably level-headed), an anthropologist and de facto narrator of the play.
One by one, the characters speak directly to the audience daring to be observed, yet humbly admitting their insecurities. Soledad (spunky Sonia Villani) asks the audience to close their eyes and imagine awful things and then regard her body objectively (clearly an impossibility which becomes an ongoing issue as the disjointed series of vignettes follow each other). Doctor Williams, a trauma surgeon (Catherine Gowl, working hard to contain her emotions, but often failing) is in love with Nadezhda, a model (Tatyana Kot, passionate and hot-headed) who has gone through reconstructive breast surgery with its obvious scars and insists on placing herself in a life-threatening situation.
Poppy Liu, slender and communicating intelligence, dares us to like her in her character of Franny, who several times positions herself on a lit pedestal positioned inches away from the front row of spectators. Antonio (Joshua Wynter, easygoing and intense at the same time) is a tattoo artist who pairs up with Soledad, even though she speaks only Italian to him at first.
Several romantic couplings emerge: Doctor Williams and Tatyana, Antonio and Soledad and, most unexpectedly, Martin and the gleefully overweight Chloe, a nurse (a totally wonderful Sevrin Anne Mason). Each love match involves lots of self-examination and compromise, all of which is exposed in great detail.
There are strange, choreographed interludes of ensemble dancing, mostly walking around, bending, lining up, always dispersing back into the individual storylines. There is much frank talk about body functions. In fact the first lines, spoken by Franny, are nothing but a schedule of her farting, peeing, coughing, scratching and pooping. Couples embrace sensually, touch tentatively and, in one scene, indicate a medical procedure. As characters speak, others are involved in all sorts of activities at the borders of the performance space, keeping the audience’s eyes busy.
Because the actors are so good and Ms. Burr directs them so well, we get to like all of them, some more than others and learn not to turn away from their various physical attributes and weaknesses. A good deal of the dialogue is tediously expository and/or didactic which sometimes turns Body into a lecture demonstration.
Set designer, Mr. Opatrny, managed to turn the very oddly configured New Ohio into the many sites demanded of the script, helped enormously by Jay Ryan’s lighting design and Sydney Maresca’s costumes which, when worn, helped define the characters.
Although there is a sense of self-indulgence—was the nudity absolutely necessary to communicate their messages?—the earnestness of Body far surpasses its provocative elements. These artists worked hard over the last few years to build this show. And despite the fact that a dramaturge might have streamlined the play, as it stands Body: Anatomies of Being is original and challenging theater.
Body: Anatomies of Being. Through May 21, at New Ohio Theatr (154 Christopher Street, between Greenwich and Washington Streets). For tickets, call212-352-3101 or visit www.NewOhioTheatre.org or www.BlessedUnrest.org
Photos: Alan Roche