In a narrative performing art like theatre, there are any number of ways to respond to any particular piece. One aesthetic puts first such considerations as dedication, idealism, earnestness and passion, energy and commitment. That was my initial response to Bare, the 2001 musical by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo given its Utah premiere by the Utah Repertory Theater Company at the Sugar Space Warehouse Theater.
When my wife and I are driving around town, we’ll see a building and I’ll ask “school, or prison?” Obviously, the buildings we pass are inevitably schools; what makes this funny is how forbiddingly prison-like they appear. I thought of that when I saw the metallic set for Bare, essentially two staircases, a catwalk upstairs, and a few school lockers and beds. The play is set in a Catholic boarding high school, and honestly, ‘school or prison’ became, for me, a functional metaphor for the world of the play. It’s about people who feel trapped, confined. It’s about trying to find something authentic and real and good while in a restricted, constricted social world. It’s about living in a closet–though not really a closet, but more like a school locker, metal and bare, with a lock on the door.
Plotwise, Bare is built on a that sturdiest of structures, the love triangle. Peter (John Patrick McKenna) is in love with Jason (Brock Dalgliesh), and has every reason to think his feelings are reciprocated. Neither of them is quite ready to come out to their fellow students, though Peter is close to ready, but Jason, outgoing, popular, athletic, filled with youthful sexual energy and power, is perfectly fine keeping the relationship quiet. It’s high school: of course there are rumors about them, and some homophobic harassment of the sensitive and introverted Peter, but Jason, he’s cool, he’s popular, and likes it when the girls flock around. And the school’s Miss Popular, Ivy (Emilie Starr), tends to get what she wants and what she wants–in addition to the lead in the school play, Romeo and Juliet–is Jason.
Further complicating the triangle is school nice guy Matt (Thomas Kulkas), who is pretty into Emilie himself, and has had reason in the past to think she likes him back. In addition, Jason has a less popular sister at the school, Nadia (Katie Evans), a self-loathing young woman with body image issues, and a ‘lash-out-at-everyone’ disposition. Rounding out the main schoolkids, is Lucas (Aaron Gordon), a party animal/entrepreneur, who, only too appropriately, has been cast as the apothecary in their R&J production. The play is being directed by a feisty nun, Sister Chantel (Yoah Guerrero), who hides a kindly soul behind a drill sergeant’s mien. And the school seems to be run by a Priest (Jonathan Scott McBride), who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of answers to the main questions the kids in the play pose to him, but who never seems uncaring.
So it’s a play, essentially, about gay kids in a gay-unfriendly religious environment. Albeit one that nonetheless tries its best to provide a nurturing and safe space for teenaged kids. I can see why Utah actors and Utah audiences would embrace the play as they have. And that was a lot of its appeal, for me, as a middle-aged straight Mormon. I loved the genuine and obvious commitment of the cast and production staff. This may be a weird response, but I felt like I was watching all of them bearing witness. Bearing testimony. To what? Well, to the idea of inclusiveness and acceptance. To the reality that, even now, too many gay kids are bullied and tormented and mistreated, and that too many of them, in hopeless despair, choose to end their own lives. Or run away, to degrading conditions on the streets. To the idea that traditional, organized religion, however compassionate, may not provide meaningful answers to kids in such terrible pain.
I could quibble about some aspects of the script and production. Peter, was, for me, an underdeveloped dramatic character, though I appreciated McKenna’s strong voice and stage presence. Some of the songs, I found rather pedestrian. The opening number set up a series of expectations–specifically, that the play would implicate religion as the main culprit of the play’s central conflict–that it (blessedly) did not fulfill. (So maybe cut the number entirely?) The Sugar Space Theater remains a chilly space in which to see a play–wear a jacket. And for me, the play felt a bit dated. It premiered in 2000, and I’d like to think that now, fifteen years later, it’s perhaps at least a little easier for young people to come out, and that when they do, they’ll be at least somewhat better treated than this.
But Dalgliesh was a stand-out, embodying Jason’s youthful energy so completely that it never occurred to me to doubt that he would pursue Ivy sexually. Starr was tremendous as well, especially in “All Grown Up,” the best song for her character. The two of them lit up the stage. I also loved Evans’ “Plain Jane” song, in which she complained about how hurt she was by society’s expectations for female attractiveness. (Sad, that a young woman as lovely as Evans would be given a song like that, an excoriating diatribe on the difficulties of being un-lovely, and therefore, in our culture, tagged un-lovable).
Still, I was very moved by the production, by the commitment and energy of the cast, by the central performers, and by the over-all message of the play. Really, please, go see it. You won’t regret the decision.