Presented by Festival Theater
Directed by A. Nora Long
Written by Michael Walker
Critique by Gillian Daniels
Content warning: nudity, vulnerable actresses with potentially slimy, powerful men.
(Boston, MA) Kate (Ashley Risteen) believes in art and is portrayed as nothing less than a serious artist in Bare Stage. She’s a passionate actress with a mission, and in her most recent role, she’s been asked to perform naked. You know, in front of her family, friends, boyfriend, everyone, in the town where she lives. In mainstream American pop culture, the prevailing attitude seems to be, “If everyone knows what they’re in for, sure, why not?” But the reality is more complex, not just in contemplating censorship but exploitation and art.
Kate’s deeply Catholic and very Irish father, Patrick Byrnes (Steve Auger) doesn’t shoot her down outright, but he isn’t pleased about the idea of his daughter being naked for one of her shows. Rachel Goldstein (Allie Meeks-Carufel), Jewish-coded, full-bodied best friend and fellow actress, brings up just how difficult it is to strut in the nude, and what kinds of bodies producers and an audience want to pay more to see and what kind they do not.
Kevin Cirone’s Parker Martin, the playwright who asks for the nudity, has a formidable but slimy vibe. I thought Kevin Cirone’s performance was pitch-perfect in Shipwrecked! and here, he proves real range. The question becomes obvious whether he’s there to fulfill the trope-y, man-with-power-over-a-woman promise his initial character proposes, or if he will circumvent our expectations. With this character, playwright Michael Walker seems to asks why someone would be motivated to ask for there to be nudity in his show in the first place. In meta moments and through Kate, Bare Stage gives us a difficult answer.
I found myself in disbelief that Kate seems to worship Parker so much. The pieces of his play-within-a-play we’re shown don’t come off with shimmering brilliance. We only know Parker Martin is important in this world when Kate’s professor boyfriend, Tim Hogan (Glen Moore), reacts with reverence to his name.
Honestly, whatever friction there is between Parker and Kate, I was more interested in how that dynamic impacts her relationship with Tim, a man thirsty for a new job on the tenure track who may be objectifying his girlfriend in a very different way. But Parker Martin more often dominates the stage as the show desperately tries to convince the audience, no, wait, he actually is kind of complicated, you know? I felt less convinced of this complexity with every passing scene.
I was more interested in the character of Rachel, who both in text and subtext brings up several points during the course of the play that could spin off into its own story altogether. Popular audiences happily want women with “dancer’s bodies” on stage, aka petite girls who are more Western European in their features. As a Jewish, full-bodied woman myself, yes, this resonated. I found Rachel to be a fairly realistic contradiction–timid on-stage but bawdy off of it, seemingly confident and outspoken in private, but understandably self-conscious when she auditions and she’s asked to “spin around” like a spit pig in a non-Kosher butcher shop. There’s certainly a population of actresses who look and feel like Rachel Goldstein, but the show points out their place is often not in “serious drama,” but in one-woman shows and comedies. Kate comments that, yes, she has a dancer’s body, but it’s not exactly healthy to maintain it–a point touched on too lightly, I thought.
Saying all that, Rachel Goldstein’s time–and I write this with frustration–still isn’t now, not this play. In the interest of wrapping up the story in the allotted two hours, the more complicated questions Rachel poses are cast away.
This show belongs to Kate. The focus is on her choices and whether acting naked, even for a play she believes in, will bring her what she wants. Or maybe the play within a play is using her as a piece of meat, like the spit pig Rachel is made to imitate. Ashley Risteen triumphantly presents a character who finds satisfaction and courage in theater, even if that means a terrible vulnerability. The play, regardless of the salacious nature of the topic, treats her as a full person, first and foremost.