Thomas Burns Scully
Have you ever been at a dinner party where you get stuck at the boring end of the table? I have. You end up surrounded by people repeating BuzzFeed factoids as if they’re the latest findings from the Curiosity Mars Rover. It’s not the fact that they don’t know interesting things that’s bothersome, it’s the fact that they are convinced you don’t know the incredibly facile things that they do know. There’s nothing worse than a condescending stupid person. Except perhaps most disease and poverty. This is the experience of Blessed Unrest’s ‘Body: Anatomies of Being’ at the New Ohio Theatre. It is a show with something to say about nudity and perceptions of the human body. It’s just, if you’re a liberal-minded New Yorker, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this before. And they present it as fresh insight. So for all its apparent radicalism, this show is very tame and, for a show that features nine naked actors of various shapes and sizes, surprisingly boring.
Format-wise, the show resembles a dreamscape. It begins with eight out of nine cast members standing naked before the audience for about a minute. They then break off in to different movement pieces, some machine-like, others more organic and esoteric. Out of these movements emerge vignettes, about four or five individual stories that are more conventional dialogue scenes. These include a love story between a cancer-survivor and a surgeon, a nude painting session, monologues about neuroscience to the audience, a discussion of race, and more. The general intent seems to be to demystify nudity, view the body free of sexual and racial context and address the issue of the beholder’s gaze. These are all good ideas, but the writing feels decidedly stale.
How to put this gently? The individual stories within the show are dull. None of them go anywhere interesting, and the societal mores they seek to challenge have all been challenged better elsewhere. Discussing race, mastectomies and breast reconstruction provide some interesting and heartfelt insights, but so much of the other dialogue is bland and regurgitative. It’s like speaking with someone who has just read a self-help book and won’t shut up about it. I stress, none of the show comes from a cynical, shallow, or dismissive place, but despite the fact that they are approaching the work with vulnerability, the actors come off as superficial, even if they are well-meaning. This is particularly noticeable in the scientific parts of the show, which feel like stilted TED talks distilled from Wikipedia articles. Despite the actors’ undeniable bravery in performing a show almost entirely nude, the piece they are performing in does not live up to their moxie.
The movement pieces that form up the rest of the show are fine, they might even be interesting. Without good dialogue scenes to connect them, however, they just feel like so much set dressing. The way the show is structured, the dialogue scenes are what’s meant to endear the performers to you, and the movement pieces extrapolate on that emotional connection. However, with the dialogue pieces faltering in their purpose, that jeopardizes the movement sections, until they become just pretty physical pictures. However, the thing that bothers me most about ‘Body’ is how un-daring it feels. It’s a show that features nine predominantly nude actors on stage, supposedly tearing down your walls of perception. How is it that I left the theatre feeling dull and un-moved? Perhaps that signifies that, in some small way, the show succeeded. In that it made me find nudity boring. Or perhaps I have had my mind dulled to nudity from six seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’. At any rate, while the show is bold in its staging, it is middling in its emotional depth and its confrontational pretensions are just that. Ironic that a play in which actors remove so much clothing is so… unrevealing.
I’ve had a lot of good conversations about feminism, nudity, sexualization, objectification and body image in my time living in New York. Some of them have made me really re-think my attitudes, and some of the people I have talked these things over with have become incredible friends and kindred minds. Maybe that’s why ‘Body: Anatomies of Being’ felt stale to me. Maybe to the people who made it, the things they are doing and saying do feel radical and new. It’s the way I feel when I talk to people who’ve just discovered ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘The White Stripes’. They are two things I have studied and enjoyed extensively, and can talk at great length and insight about. To then have the conversation: “Who’s cuter, Tennant or Smith?” (Tennant, obvs), or “Did you know, Jack White uses a Whammy Pedal, not a bass guitar on ‘Seven Nation Army’?” feels tame and 1st grade. That said, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on nudity and sexualization, but none of what was discussed in ‘Body’ felt new or epoch-making to me (Maybe I’m better informed than I though). It felt like valid, basic advice about not being a tool, that was presented like a newly discovered book of the Bible. So the show is well-intentioned and brave, just deeply flawed.
I’ve completely failed at not being patronizing in this review haven’t I? Don’t worry, the next one will be much nicer…
‘Body: Anatomies of Being’ is being presented by Blessed Unrest at the New Ohio Theatre until May 21st. Tickets start at $18. Full details can be found at blessedunrest.org along with full show schedule and ticketing links. They can also be found on Twitter (@_BlessedUnrest_) and on Facebook (As ‘Blessed Unrest’). For details about the New Ohio Theatre see newohiotheatre.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)