The Naked Truth
The plot of David Hare's The Blue Room might be described as "six degrees of penetration." In the play's opening scene, an off-duty cab driver gets it on with a prostitute. Next the cab driver seduces a French au pair, then the au pair has a sexual encounter with a student who is having an affair with a politician's wife, and so on.
Because The Blue Room depicts bedfellows from whores to blue bloods, one might think Hare is going for a sociopolitical commentary of sorts, but no such luck. The play is an adaptation based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 play La Ronde, a scathing exposé about the decay of European values. Since Schnitzler was a doctor, the play also dealt with the plague of the day: syphilis. Surprisingly this modern-day adaptation imitates the Old World values more than it carves out new ways of looking at society. A politician offers his wife this old chestnut: "There are two kinds of women -- the kind you sleep with and the kind you marry." The female characters are superficially trapped in the outdated underpinnings of their social and cultural roles. The au pair and prostitute are for the most part flat characters, whereas the actress and politician's wife get to be catty, clever, and three-dimensional. Topics such as sexually transmitted diseases are treated delicately in a few outdated references to being safe and "hygiene."
If The Blue Room is not intended to reinvigorate the social and political commentary of its predecessor, perhaps it is intended to be theatrically innovative. While Hare preserves the sexual round-robin structure of the original play, he departs from Schnitzler in one fascinating and promising way: Instead of a full cast, only two actors play the five couples. In GableStage's production, David Mann and Stephanie McNeil take us through myriad fairly predictable sexual scenarios. Our protagonists straddle the standard heterosexual stigmata (age, marital, and socioeconomic differences). Their interactions are at times humorous, the fast-paced staging is eye-catching, but an abundance of unjustified nudity and the sexual objectification of the key female role keeps The Blue Room from reaching its dramatic potential.
Since the century-old scandal of the play's origins (it was initially banned), The Blue Room seems to cause a fuss wherever it beds down. The 1998 West End production became an overhyped media event thanks to a five-second, dimly lit glance at Nicole Kidman's hindquarters. While GableStage cannot offer theatergoers such high-priced derrière, this production has its own angle: lots of nudity on and off the stage. Besides full frontal nudity during the play, both actors undress on either side of the stage between scenes. If what was happening onstage were more dramatically compelling, this dressing and undressing in the wings could be seen as an extended metaphor for the transformations that take place onstage. As it stands, this display comes off as merely exhibitionist, serving no artistic purpose. Because McNeil has the thin, angular body type of a model, every time she rushes to the wings to change clothes, it feels as if we are watching some backstage footage from the fashion channel.
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Nudity, like any other theatrical element, must have a purpose. McNeil peeling off G-strings and tight skirts in the wings seems to be nothing more than eye candy; this unfortunate directorial choice further undermines her already shaky characterization. If Hare had kept the original ten actors, McNeil could easily have been cast in the role of the model. She adds dimension to this role by giving the ditzy seventeen-year-old a serious side. The model's scene with a playwright is both funny and touching, but McNeil is not as adept at morphing into different characters as Mann is. Despite her radical costume changes, I am consistently aware of this one person's presence on-stage. She has one way of adjusting her skirt, one way of crossing and uncrossing her legs -- whether she is a prostitute or a politician's wife.
On the other hand, David Mann gives us a taste of the interpretive acrobatics these actors were intended to perform. Despite the provincial and sketchy au pair-and-student scene, which is a total throwaway, Mann manages to look quite different in each scene. He thoroughly and fluidly transforms from a narcissistic playwright to a heart-of-steel cabby and more, evincing a distinct and elaborate lexicon of gesture and style for each character. His accents are flawless as well. Mann has the requisite spontaneity and improvisational skills for such shape-shifting onstage. Directorially speaking, the male actor is given considerably more ground to cover here. Mann gets to be frumpy, despicable, endearing, elegant, and more. Odd that the female characters are all portrayed as physically attractive, even stunning. Had the role been developed differently, McNeil's femininity could have taken on a much more unconventional and interesting shape.
Maybe if we were in Milwaukee, nudity onstage would be enough to get us out of the house, but in South Florida, where there's more flesh revealed per capita than in any other city in the United States, we need a little something more rather than less.
Behind every successful man is an outstanding woman -- or at least a very talented actress, as we discover in Femenino Plural's production of Hombres, an intriguing look at the male psyche from the female perspective. This series of seven one-acts written by various Spanish playwrights was assembled by a female theater troupe from Barcelona, Companya T de Teatre, and designed to be performed by female actresses. Femenino Plural artistic director Maria Banda-Rodaz, who directs this production, has not just assembled a cast of women who can imitate or impersonate men but a superb team of Spanish-speaking actresses who embody the text in spirited and enigmatic ways. The result is not mere gender-bending but a rich theatrical experience.
Originally chosen to participate in the International Hispanic Theater Festival, the play ended up running independently with a preview at Miami Light Project and then an opening at GableStage, where it employs the cobalt blue walls of the venue's concurrent production of The Blue Room. The minimalist set serves Hombres well. Banda-Rodaz adds a few chairs and a painter's easel with poster boards, which are used to signal the beginning of each new one-act. The director has taken what was originally a very static collection of plays and intelligently heightened the movement and physicality in this production. This pays off especially in the evening's two standout plays: Primavera and Ramone.
In Francesc Pereira's Primavera, a little boy tells of his early sexual experiences. Some are disturbing, others are hilarious, but the acting in this piece is what truly mesmerizes. Ivonne Azurdia and Jennifer Smith simultaneously play a little boy in horn-rimmed glasses. Azurdia sits in a chair telling the story, while Smith gives a visual account through mime. While Azurdia wrings her hands and speaks rapidly in a breathless-little-boy voice, Smith's eyes grow wide and awestruck behind the thick spectacles. The rhythm between these two actresses is so impeccable, it almost feels like a jazz riff. Azurdia's evocative voice ranges from incredulous to chagrined; her comic timing meshes perfectly with Smith's astounding array of gestures and facial expressions. By confining her body to a small working space, Smith intensifies the effect of her broad gesticulations.
In Sergi Belbel's Ramone, Azurdia, Michelle Riu, Luisa Mercedes Garcia, and Esther Galeote represent one unhappy woman confronting her negligent husband, played by Smith. As the male chauvinist husband, Smith modulates her character so well that by the end he is both terrifying and hilarious. This control also prevents Ramone from becoming a caricature. The text calls for the women to sit in a row in front of the title character, but Banda-Rodaz chose to have the four women walk a circle around him, visually and spatially heightening the dramatic tension. Riu, Smith, and Azurdia, all Miami-based actresses who perform primarily in English, give excellent performances in Spanish. The entire troupe coheres well. With a few chairs and an empty stage, Hombres is a must-see for all Spanish speakers, male and female.
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