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Bare Truths of Character

While nudity in other areas of our culture has become ho-hum, on the stage it still holds the power to shock, amuse, titillate--and make us think.

April 21, 2002|REED JOHNSON

The evening sticks in Jerry Mitchell's mind as an example of how full-frontal nudity in live theater can actually be, well, "a family affair."

It was a performance that Mitchell, a veteran Broadway choreographer, saw while sipping sangria in a provincial Spanish town, at an outdoor stage under a dreamy moonlit sky--"the most magical night of my life." A tongue-in-cheek version of the biblical story of creation, it featured not one, but two Adams and Eves, bouncing around in the buff. At one point--"I kid you not," Mitchell says--the two Adams started "shaking each others' penises, and every time they did, a sound would go, 'Bd-ringg! Bd-ringg!'" Meanwhile the all-ages audience pointed and shrieked with laughter.

Sure, you'll find much more outrageous and explicit stuff just by surfing the Internet, flipping on cable TV or cruising your local suburban cineplex, says Mitchell, who's choreographing "The Full Monty," that mostly PG-rated homage to blue-collar male bonding that opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre. But seldom, Mitchell believes, can these other media match the visceral energy, the human expressive potential, that nudity packs in live theater.

"I think nudity on stage is much more powerful than nudity in film," he said during a rehearsal break. "And it's different in different countries. We are a much more uptight society about being naked than Spain, than London even, than Amsterdam for sure. Yet look at any advertisement and how do we sell underwear, how do we sell socks, how do we sell perfume, how do we sell anything in this country? It's by having a naked body next to it. It's such a different kind of aesthetic here."

Los Angeles Times Thursday May 2, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled name-In an April 21 Sunday Calendar story about nudity on stage, the last name of "The Full Monty" actor Geoffrey Nauffts was misspelled in a photo caption.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 5, 2002 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled name-In an April 21 story about nudity on stage, the last name of 'The Full Monty' actor Geoffrey Nauffts was misspelled in a photo caption.

Nudity in theater can wear many different masks. It can be revolutionary or regressive, powerful or pointless. It can be comic, erotic, heroic, subversive, insightful or just plain god-awful. It may be as old as the art of theater itself, a vestigial remnant of ancient tribal rituals designed to sublimate or stoke primitive passions. In 1st century Rome, female mimes frequently stripped for the pleasure of onlookers. In the 19th century, naked actors posed in tableaux vivant re-creations of classical paintings and sculptures, shielding prurient interest with the fig leaf of art.

Several decades later, those performers' descendants (of both sexes) are tossing away their underwear and inhibitions on stages in Los Angeles, New York and around the world. In David Hare's "The Blue Room," which closes today at the Pasadena Playhouse, a roundelay of couples in various stages of undress probe the perilous intersection of sex and power. On Broadway, a stage adaptation of "The Graduate" recently opened to a round of Bronx cheers, after an earlier West End version left London's male critics in a lather. And after premiering two years ago at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, "The Full Monty" is still charming the pants off New York and London audiences with its story of six unemployed Buffalo steelworkers who resolve to earn quick cash by making like Chippendales dancers.

Once again, actors are getting naked. And whenever that happens, the artistic stakes go up; the creative temperature rises. The stark presence of an actor au naturel tests the invisible boundary between performer and audience, flirts with the danger zone where empathy can turn to embarrassment and seduction to squeamishness--or vice versa--in the flicker of a bare thigh, the flash of a breast.

As it happens, live theater may be one of the last bastions of meaningful nudity left in American culture. In Hollywood movies and on cable television, naked bodies have become as pervasive as minivans--and, consequently, about as exciting. The explosion of triple-X Web sites, the spread of video porn to suburban living rooms and the slither (or, if you will, the grueling forced march) of sex and sexuality up Main Street and down every back alley of popular culture have caused nudity to gradually lose much of its physical and symbolic potency.

But in live theater, nudity still matters. There, it still exerts the power to shock, titillate, unnerve and, occasionally, overwhelm. When nudity in live theater is used effectively, it communicates to an audience on a rare, heightened level of intimacy. It can take on metaphorical rather than literal shadings, which veil the human body even while mercilessly exposing its every bulge and blemish. Contrary to appearances, or audience expectations, sex is sometimes the last thing that nudity in live theater is really about.

"Nudity has become symbolic of sex, or a metaphor for sexual activity, in contemporary movies, which then tend not to explore sexuality very well," says playwright David Henry Hwang, whose 1988 Tony-winning drama, "M. Butterfly," turned a male character's full-frontal display into a spectacular revelation about cross-cultural deception and denial.

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