Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bare: Utah Repertory Theater Company



In your life, in what situations would you use the term "bare?"  Of what meaning do you think?

The first thought that comes to mind is "naked."  A step further leads you to think of feeling exposed/vulnerable, then perhaps to a burden you bare, or even to bare a testimony.

Utah Repertory Theater Company has taken a huge stride in the equality movement through bringing Bare: A Pop Opera (musical), to Salt Lake City.  In fact, Utah Rep is giving 15% of ticket sales proceeds to OUTreach Resource Centers, "a non-profit collection of youth resource centers dedicated to transforming communities and saving lives through programs designed to promote positive outcomes for youth experiencing homelessness, family rejection or victimization."

Bare, straight from Utah Rep's website, "is a coming-of-age story of a group of high school seniors at a co-ed Catholic boarding school, with each struggling to define themselves in the face of their relationships, sexuality, and religion. As they search to come to terms with who they are — and who the world thinks they should be — they seek answers from their church, their friends, and ultimately, from within themselves. Bare examines the consequences of baring your soul — or hiding it — from those who matter most."

Instead of sharing with you the specifics of the plot, I want to share with you the feeling of the show.  Go back to my earlier question about "bare" situations in your life.  How did you feel: Declaring your first love?  Graduating from high school?  Moving away from home?  Falling in love?  Losing someone you love?  Keeping a secret that could change someone's life?  Finding or losing your love for God? Realizing someone you trusted was wrong?  You were vulnerable, exposed, and bare.  We have all been through at least one of these situations, which means we all know exactly what the feelings and struggles of the characters in this story.  

Utah Rep and director Johnny Hebda, pulled off quite a feat over the past few months, gathering a cast combined of experienced actors and actors the actual age of the characters.  I worried at first that this material is not appropriate for teenagers.  Not even close to appropriate.  But watching the story, I realized that these are exactly the trials real teenagers and young adults are experiencing. 

My first thought upon entering the new Sugar Space facility was in regards to how drastically improved the venue is since my last visit.  Several months ago, I was rubbed the wrong way about the bare-bones of the set structure, lack of temperature control, and location.  Audience members will be relieved to know that all of these issues have been resolved and many additions have been made.  

You will notice 5 LCD screens that will delight you throughout the show with text messages, face book posts, instagram feed, and photos.  Mostly used during scene transitions, this feature keeps the audience absorbed in the world of Bare while keeping us all in stitches with laughter.  Surrounding you on the walls are 24 posters of the cast members' characters,leading your eyes to the stage with rows of lockers, dual staircases, and a church backdrop, immediately warping you back in time to grade school days.  Utah Rep's lighting and sound systems never missed a beat (although the sound tech did miss a few cues in the rapid one-off solos of the 24 cast members).   

When the cast enters, we are thrown back to the days of Catholic school uniforms and mass.  I quickly picked up on the flattering and meaningful costume details of Nancy Susan Cannon.  The senior class members are dressed differently than the underclassman, with great detail on the crests of their sweaters, matching skirts, personalized shoes, and hairstyles.  I see the same simultaneous uniqueness and uniformity I saw in my Catholic-school friends growing up.  One of the costuming/prop decisions that made me smile was for Peter (John Patrick McKenna), the lead character struggling with his sexuality, to have a purple backpack.  

In the opening number, there is an eerie vocal line sung simultaneously with a choral piece by Jonathan Scott McBride as the priest- this monotonous, deep Latin curse.  I'm sure it wasn't actually a curse, but it sets a tone immediately that while things may seem perfect, there is something dark lurking beneath.  Writing of music brings me to one of the production qualities I always love about Utah Rep is the use of a live band.  Our music director for this show is the brilliant Anne Puzey.  The physical placement of the band in proximity to the audience was perfect to be able to see them as part of the show, yet not overpower the vocalists who are precisely on par in their singing and their character portrayal as actors.  

In the first ten minutes of the show, we see Claire (Shalee Schmidt), the mother of Peter, balance humor and heartbreak to convey a complex feeling of distress, confusion, love and acceptance regarding the truths she knows about her son, but will not yet admit.  Continuing with the "truths we know" theme, the characters all seem to be sure of God's existence, yet constantly ask, "Is God listening?"  We see each struggle more with asking why God isn't responding than asking if God exists.  This strikes me as a theme of underlying, constant hope that there is more out there in something greater than ourselves.  

Enter Jason (Brock Dalgleish) in the locker room kissing Peter.  Jason is a muscular man's man, always a step ahead of letting himself feel in anticipation of what others might think.  A quote from the priest in the second half sums up Jason's actions in the first, "Don't question too much and you'll get along fine."  The problem is, no one can accept ignorance for long.  We all start questioning eventually.  For Jason, however, there are no answers and he is lead to a world full of fear of the unknown.  If not for Dalgleish's portrayal of the carefree, then conflicted Jason, I don't know if I would have understood the importance the show needs us to see of never accepting a world at face-value.  

Back to Peter.  He looks the conventional fresh-faced innocent type, yet has no problem accepting his life is not conventional.  He recognizes love and knows love is more important than fear of a "what if."  McKenna makes a heroic return to the Utah stage with his powerful tenor and silent turned siren character.  

Peter is not the only one in love with Jason - the ever popular, promiscuous Ivy (Emilie Starr) is too.  What I love about Starr is how comfortable she makes audiences feel when she is on stage.  She has a calming presence in that you are never worried about her making a mistake.  I don't worry about most actors, truthfully, but she truly puts me at ease.  If you watch her throat when she sings, you don't even see strain - a true gift of talent and training. 

To add to this weird love triangle, making it more of a square(?), we have Matt (Thomas Kulkus) who is in love with Ivy.  Kulkus is utterly convincing as the doe-eyed, puppy-dog faced (in a good way!) longing teenager.  Matt intrigues me because of his devotion to a girl who won't return the favor and his devotion to the secrets of Jason and Peter.  He sees he is losing Ivy to Jason , yet holds on to something that could destroy Jason's reputation.  When provoked the tables may turn, yet Kulkus portrays this character in such a way that you do not see any true intention of malice.  You see a hurt young man who seems to understand how important it is that we be authentic to our choices.  

Jason has yet another love - his sister Nadia (Katie Evans).  She is the only character who seems the full 360 degrees of what he is experiencing.  Evans plays off of Dalgleish in the most adoring, unconditionally loving, tormenting relationship that only a brother and sister could share.  The pair does not shy away from physical affection, be that a hug or a punch.  Nadia's burden to bare is her insecurity about being fat.  Her song about the burdens and dreams that will never be because of her size are thoughts that crippled me as an adolescent, obese girl.  I watched Evans' Nadia wanting to hug her and tell her that she can take control of her life and things do get better, yet even if Nadia were a real person, I know that telling a teenager those things means nothing until they experience it themselves.  

In a show so concerned with love, we see only one truly unconditionally loving character in quite the unexpected place.  Sister Chantelle (Yoah Guerrero) delivers two of the most poignant lines themes in the show: 1. God don't make no trash 2. He is just as God wants him to be.  Guerrero can SANG!  Her voice never quit, but there were a few parts where the tricky vocal runs caused some breathlessness and strained facial expressions, but as soon as she got a breath in - Bam!  Big note.  Not only can Sister Chantelle deliver love and vocal majesty, she is hilariously the true comic relief of the show which may or may not (go see it!) include a guest appearance as the Virgin Mary.

Other stand-out performances shared with us were that Carolyn Crow as Kyra, Jennifer McKay as Diane, and the entire "ensemble."  Crow has a light of a presence on stage that grows brighter and brighter.  Her face is always illuminated in expression and feeling.  McKay is just adorable in an absolutely beautiful and talented way.  She pulls your eyes towards her almost every time she is on stage with her dedicated, natural character decisions.  The ensemble kept the energy high through their choices to not let their characters drop, having purpose in their movements, and singing to fill the room whether an angelic tone or rock.  I also want to point out the professionalism of a very young cast - I heard zero back-stage noise, all scene changes were prompt, and everyone appeared to make their cues.  

As with all things wonderful, there were a few aspects that could have used improvements.  The score is vocally quite a challenge and at parts, mostly the lighter-sounding runs, the pitch fell wayward.   Not often, mind you, but it happened several times from several characters.  There was also a rap solo that, although the lyric and vocal energy was high, just didn't have enough energy by way of facial expression and bold movement.  Look as confident as you sound because the scene is great.  To all on stage, I also share that you should not be fidgeting with your hair and costumes unless your character is.  Audiences are distracted by watching those constantly swiping hair out of faces (so much of this happened) or pulling skirts/pants down/up.  If you don't act uncomfortable, we won't be uncomfortable.  My final fix is for the facility itself.  The ladies restroom stall doors can be "locked" but opened with a slight push.  Which I unfortunately found out when someone thought I might be a little lonely in my stall at intermission.  

Bare is, most of all, about love, conveying the power of a lyric most are familiar with from the musical Les Miserables, "To love another person is to see the face of God."  Bare teaches us to love, to hope, to know that God creates each of us with purpose.  

Please see Bare.*  Please remember what you felt at your most vulnerable, that rawness, that fear, that wonderment.  Look at each person you pass today knowing they have felt those things too and love them a little more out of understanding if nothing else.  You can find details about the show, which runs through January 31, here.  

*Content Advisory*  - This show would have a hard "R" rating if it were a movie.  Those sensitive to non-family friendly entertainment or easily offended should not see Bare.  However, if you have a close friend or family member who has struggled with accepting their sexuality, I think this show might help you understand a little more.    



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