As an artistic medium, theater is uniquely qualified to house relational studies of bodies in space.
For books, the bedrock means of artistic expression are the words on the page. For movies, it’s the camera; though obviously human bodies are objects in front of that camera, the lens directs our gaze at specific physical gestures.
Theater, on the other hand, lays bare the human body in all its thorny glory for the audience to observe, unencumbered by neither filter nor frame outside of where our own two eyes decide to roam. Every micro corporeal movement, every nuance of demeanor and body language by the cast is part of the play, a fundamental basis for understanding the behavior on display.
But, like, how bare are we talking here?
Enter infield stage left: Second Stage’s revival of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, now playing on Broadway at the Hayes Theater. When the play premiered in 2002, its in-your-face nudity was the gab of the town, an indication of its novelty on major stages at the time.
Well folx, the more things change…
No one can be a completist when it comes to New York Theater, but I’ve seen as much as humanly possible in the intervening 20 years, and let me tell you:
Though the community loves to brand ourselves as an “anything and everything goes” liberal bastion of unfettered artistic expression, nudity is still scanter than scant; how many seminal texts can you name that tread this sub-terrain?
Take Me Out points to some of what we’ve been missing out on all along.
Again, because theater is uniquely qualified to be a relational study of bodies in space — specifically: a study of how human bodies relate to and interact with each other within that relational space (AKA: the stage), and the meaning revealed in these ever-evolving arrangements — we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not examining how and why nudity has a habit of totally reshaping human relations and relationships.
One reason theater tends to shy away from nudity — our discomfort with it — is exactly what makes it a subject worthy of exploration. Why does nudity affect us so much? How and why does its emergence in a live setting radically upend the temperature in the room? What the fuck’s up with that!
Take Me Out’s three instances of nudity provide a crash course in how to utilize such sequences for dramatic and thematic purposes. In the first, a baseball player confronts another teammate — a superstar who just publicly announced he’s gay — on how this revelation will hurt the ball club’s chemistry; the altered locker-room dynamic will inevitably seep onto the field. He rants about the annoyance of his newfangled self-consciousness engendered by this news.
The irony: he’s butt-ass naked for the entire conversation! He quite literally shows his ass; if he was really concerned about these matters, then wouldn’t it have occurred to him — nay, wouldn’t it have been a priority! — to cover up his “modesty”, and not, you know, parade himself around in the buff, standing right next to the self-purported source of the environment’s newfound awkwardness?? His flagrant disregard demonstrates how his mouth is writing checks that his person clearly doesn’t actually care about cashing; his nudity communicates the truth that his words belie.
The second appearance of nudity is the real spectacle. The roster drops trow in the showers…while spouting the most intellectually elevated dialogue in the whole play, delving into the intersection of nudity, sexuality, masculinity, and male camaraderie, and how team sports are predicated on the stability of these liquid constructs.
But it might be difficult to follow the discussion because, um, you’re too distracted by all those dangling dingalings, dingdongs and schlongs.
Which is the idea! We’re so aware of and consumed by the individual distinctions of the stripped-down bodies before us, they pull our focus away from the substance of their discourse. What does that say about us, and the relationship between our cognition and the prism of the human body? Or, should that be: cognition through the prism of the human body?
And, after clocking the relative “manhood” between the actors (another concept-cum-issue to contemplate; #BDE), how does this knowledge color our perception of the characters, and their perception of each other, and how they treat each other, and how they view themselves? All central themes of the play!
These simmering questions boil into the explosion of the third nude scene, the dramatic climax of the evening, when all these preceding inquiries clash together in a cataclysm of thought and deed. We humans are messy beings, and when literally laid bare, humanity becomes even messier.
So it’s high time for more theater to mess around with and within this mess.