RTP and 5th Wall Theatre’s ‘Body Awareness’ lets it all hang out
Body Awareness by Annie Baker is a quiet, low-key night at the theater. After The Lion King, it’s just what I needed.
This sensitive comedy, however, does not lack its own brand of conflict, thrills and spectacle. Its casual rewards sneak up on you.
Melissa Johnston Price’s lovely, subtle performance as Joyce is among the major attributes of this evening. She is like a cozy down comforter, warm and inviting, protecting us against the turbulent winds within her own house.
And my, those winds do blow. Her 21-year-old son Jared (Chandler Hubbard) may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome but definitely is wound tighter than a clock, devoid of empathy, often cruel and frequently violent.
Her mate Phyllis (Sara Heifetz), a psychology professor at a small Vermont college, is an avid feminist. She socially and politically clashes with both Joyce and Jared. She lectures forcefully about the “male gaze” and especially “the white male gaze.”
It is Body Awareness week at the college and Phyllis has scheduled speakers, performers and events which she awkwardly but endearingly introduces at various points in the play.
One of the artists Phyllis invites is Frank Bonitatibus (Daniel Moore) who is invited as a houseguest. Frank takes naked pictures of women. Of all ages. This outrages Phyllis but intrigues Joyce. The question about whether Frank’s “white male gaze” is abusive or artistic is at the heart of the drama for these two women.
Ms. Baker has an intelligent understated voice as a playwright. The passage of time is reflected in the changing of the day of the week on the blackboard prior to her introductions. The way Phyllis approaches the blackboard and chalks in the day tells a lot about the tension mounting in the house.
The play has some credibility issues, mostly having to do with Phyllis. The script has her make 180 degree emotional changes within a few lines. Why would Phyllis invite this man and not know what his area of expertise is? If she engaged him to make an example of his abusiveness, why does she feign surprise and more importantly why does she invite him as a houseguest?
Despite these hurdles, Sara Heifetz embodies Phyllis with a straightforward common sense that keeps the rough character transitions believable. Her introductions to the lectures are studies in awkward acting. Ms. Heifetz has been devoted to acting in plays for Fifth Wall the last few years and in turn she has been tasked to make difficult characters human. She has done so with skill and style.
Joyce decides she wants to pose for Frank. This infuriates Phyllis to the point of making an ultimatum. If Joyce does this, the relationship is over. Both women have a journey to make before they can reconcile philosophies and the script gives them little time to do that. The way it’s done however is clever. It’s done through Jared.
Chandler Hubbard gives a sly, winning comic performance as Jared. His split second transitions between blunt cruelties, paranoid defensiveness and disarming intelligence are handled with skill and humour. Hubbard grounds Jared with a charming awkwardness that makes his abrasiveness palatable.
Convinced he has no affliction, all Jared wants is to have sex with a girl. (I’m sorry. When hearing the name “Jared,” my mind went to the “Subway” sandwich guy a few times).
Hubbard speaks with an affectless tone to tout his intelligence (“I’m an autodidact” he frequently repeats) and he revels in his obsession of etymology. His mastery of the detail is a nice counterpoint to his failures socially. He is convinced he can be a great lexicon master if he can only quit his job at MacDonald’s. Is that what girls are looking for in a mate?
One of the funniest passages in the play finds Frank giving Jared explicit advice about approaching women. His suggestions about what to do and the order in which to do it shows a troubling side of Frank that justifies Phyllis’ suspicions.
Daniel Moore handles Frank with a touching earnestness that belies his motives for his chosen profession and his desire to photograph Joyce.
Director Carol Piersol is sensitively attuned to the play’s casual pacing. She allows her actors time and space to explore the emotional entanglements which ultimately benefit the audience who can then make sense of the various dilemmas.
David Allan Ballas’ set confused me this time around. Three separated units. The kitchen, the bedroom and the classroom. The space between the kitchen and the bedroom was used as an entrance/exit lane, which mentally connected the bedroom next to the kitchen (which was strange) leaving the classroom, which had equal distance between it and the bedroom on the other side with no mental connection, as it was at the College, not in the home. This seemed like an incongruous floorplan to me. Most of the scenes take place in the kitchen, so stage right is used 70% of the time, while the classroom on stage left only 10%.
Sheila Ross’ costumes were fine but left no great impression. K. Jenna Ferree’s lighting design gave great aid in scene transition and differentiating one locale from another.
If you walk into Body Awareness with the idea you’re going to see some naked bodies, you’re half right. No one disrobes on stage but the RTP walls were covered with beautiful black and white nude studies all done by Hayes and Fisk Photography. These studies just happened to be of the cast and many of the theatre craftsmen in town. All photographs were extremely tasteful and most did not show faces so you were left to guess who’s who.
In one picture, two young Richmond actors who are a couple in real life were beautifully entangled. I recognized some of the cast. Also a friend’s wife. One designer friend of mine had previously challenged me to discover which one was her. I looked at each photograph carefully (difficult job but someone had to do it) but I could not find her. Then I walked into the Men’s room and came upon a beautiful black and white picture of a woman’s breast in profile. Whether that’s her or not, I’m giving her credit for it. Much credit.
As beautiful as my colleagues are in the nude, I was somewhat offended not to have been asked to pose. I am aware of my Falstaffian figure. I have Body Awareness! Focusing on the young and the beautiful is so predictable. So safe. I have a nice tush. Twice as much in fact. We can call that picture “Big Kosher Brooklyn Bootie.” I’m ready for my close-up Mr. Weber.
Body Awareness runs now through May 14th at Richmond Triangle Theatre’s playhouse – you can scoop tickets here!
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