For those of you drawn to National Pastime Theater's Naked July festival for the voyeuristic thrill of staring at nude performers—in other words, you honest ones—let's begin with brief, pervcentric ratings of the festival's five productions. (One caveat: if you're so completely out of sync with current cultural imperatives that you like seeing body hair as it naturally grows, stay home. The festival's budget for shaving kits and Nair must be substantial.)
Nocturne Living Canvas's seventh evening-length work boasts 12 slim, toned, twentysomething performers—and one older guy who wanders on and off occasionally, as though lost—frolicking naked for an hour while intricate, abstract images are projected onto them. The imagery is so dense it's hard to check out anyone's junk except from front-row seats, all of which were occupied on the sparsely attended opening night. When it's over, you can take off your clothes and briefly join the cast onstage for a serious look. Lots of nice asses. B+
Speakeasy to Me This faux-British music-hall revue by the Ripettes Burlesque is as close as you'll get to a straight-up titty show in an off-Loop theater. Four lithe, twentysomething women execute seven stripteases—solo, in pairs, and in a four-way sponge bath—with dancerly precision and Penthouse-ready pouts. They stop at thongs and pasties; their unnamed male assistant, who portrays himself as gay, ends up in boxer briefs. The emcee murders Tom Lehrer's "She's My Girl" at the piano, but lots of nice asses. B
The Girlie-Q Variety Hour Touted as queer burlesque despite an almost complete lack of discernibly queer content, Girlie-Q offers a half-dozen amply fleshed, definitely no-longer-twentysomething women, dutifully and unimaginatively stripping down to thongs and pasties. Lots of other acts—singers, comedians, and a juggler—to wait through. Asses no better than yours. C-
The Great American Nudie Spectacular Ninety minutes of adult-themed sketch comedy that are barely nudie and never spectacular. The eight performers are entirely dressed through ten of their clumsy, occasionally incomprehensible sketches, flash their privates briefly in three others, and finally get naked in a two-minute finale. If one of the performers hadn't stepped out of my wet dream, I would've spent the evening on Twitter. Didn't get a good look at his ass. D-
The Day on Which a Man Dies Tennessee Williams's forgotten 1960 play about Jackson Pollock's self-destructive collapse is fascinating, thought-provoking, and powerfully acted. Nobody naked. F
If you like a little content with your nudity, you can check out National Pastime's lobby, where several dozen thoughtful, carefully observed figure studies by local artists are displayed. Festival producer and National Pastime artistic director Laurence Bryan says he rounded up the work in a mad dash, posting an ad on Craigslist just two days before opening. But despite its hasty preparation, the show is worth consideration, if only to puzzle over the profound sense of introspection that permeates the exhibitionistic moments captured on canvas.
Once you're inside the theater, though, opportunities to puzzle, ponder, wonder, deliberate, or consider are few and far between. With the exception of the Tennessee Williams play, there's precious little provocative thinking to make up for the often slipshod feel of the shows. More than two decades after performers like Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle began using nudity to lead audiences through myriad cultural, psychological, and political minefields, one might expect fringe performers to consider some of the larger issues that public nudity brings up. But when the focus is on flesh in these shows, pretty much all we're asked to do is watch women undress while pulling sassy faces—as though such exhausted tropes were inherently interesting.
Part of the problem may stem from the anti-intellectual instincts of the flourishing neoburlesque movement, which largely sidesteps meaningful questions about fetishizing women by wrapping striptease in irony. We're all postfeminist now, the argument goes, so we can reclaim historically oppressive practices and retool them for our pleasure, even while continuing to subject women to the same old objectifying gaze. Since women are imagined to be in control and celebrating their sexuality on their own terms, no one need worry about the suspiciously patriarchal demand that they offer up their bodies for others' entertainment. And anyway, all those uptight feminists just needed to get laid.
But shouldn't we be just a little bit troubled by the fact that while men take off their clothes in the Naked July shows, only women strip? Or that the Ripettes' male emcee, an explicit surrogate for the rest of the audience, is understood to be watching the women's staged lesbianism—undressing each other, bathing each other, making out—because it caters to his (not their) desires? What are we to make of the fact that the lone African-American Ripette is the only one who tap-dances? It's telling that the shows featuring female strippers—Speakeasy to Me and The Girlie-Q Variety Hour—are costumed to suggest the Roaring 20s, when a woman might get rowdy but still knew her place.
The Girlie-Q Variety Hour and Nocturne make attempts to address current cultural politics, but neither is terribly successful. Girlie-Q may position itself as queer cabaret, but the only overtly queer content comes in a drag performance of Kander and Ebb's "Everybody's Girl." There's nothing progressive about lesbians stripping in ways that women have stripped for decades—or, for that matter, about a gay man juggling, even when he does it as expertly as Brad French. Girlie-Q's sole venture into substance comes in the comedy of the Puterbaugh Sisters, doddering fuddy-duddies who marvel at the tumult of modern life. "Mexicans are the new blacks, who replaced the Negroes," one chirps happily. It's hardly cutting-edge satire, but more material like theirs would go a long way toward rescuing Girlie-Q from irrelevance.
Nocturne might have been the most engaged and engaging work in the festival, if not for its theatrical and political naivete. Writer-director Lisa Adams has fashioned a loose-knit fable about a businessman weighed down by worldly responsibilities. He strips off his suit and descends into a fantastic world populated by creatures from children's literature—Lewis Carroll's caterpillar, Maurice Sendak's wild things—who help him rediscover the elemental joys of childlike play. Throughout the hour-long piece, Pete Guither's vivid, colorful abstract images are projected onto the performers' bodies. The visual effect is mesmerizing, but the group's muddled storytelling, cursory acting, and fussy movement render the story nearly impenetrable.
The larger problem comes in Living Canvas's attempt to frame the piece as an act of consciousness-raising. Nocturne is "about body acceptance and understanding the beauty and expressiveness of the human form that all of us hide beneath the trappings of societal acceptance," a program note gushes. To drive home the point, on opening night the lead actor gave a curtain speech praising the troupe's mission of showing that "every body is a work of art." But all of the bodies on display—except for that of the mysterious older guy—are the slim, trim, young, nearly hairless sort that our culture has deemed acceptable. For all its grandiose claims, Nocturne capitulates to the very imperatives it purports to critique.
Lots of nice asses, though.