Onstage Nudity: Bare Necessity or Barely Necessary?

Onstage Nudity: Bare Necessity or Barely Necessary?

Nudity on the stage is nothing new.  But while bare bodies will always possess the power to (a)rouse, titillate, their ability to shock an audience or make a work appear modern or edgy has been dulled by frequent, arbitrary and/or gratuitous (mis)use.

Some plays call for partial or full nudity, and a director who stages such a play has to decide how to honor this element.  The text of King Lear, for example, suggests that both Lear and Edgar appear stripped down wearing little more than underwear.

However, a more curious situation occurs when plays do not explicitly call for nudity, but a director elects to use it.  Countless instances of this come to mind: One is Marisa Tomei’s topless portrayal of Salome (in which she starred opposite Al Pacino’s Herod) in the 2003 Broadway production directed by Estelle Parsons.  Wilde’s text does not specify that Salome be naked when she performs the dance of seven veils.  Another example is director Robert Falls’ 2006 Goodman Theater production of King Lear, which featured, at moments, a fully nude  Lear (Stacy Keach), Edgar (Joaquin Torres), and Cordelia (Laura Odeh).  In both these cases, I left questioning what the nudity added to the performance.  Would Tomei’s performance not have been just as moving if she had danced scantily clad, rather than unclad?  Falls’ nude Lear and Edgar, on the other hand, evoked harmless snickers from the audience, interjecting some humor into the otherwise serious play, but Cordelia’s naked corpse (all but a black leather S & M like collar), which served as the final visual in this Tarantino-esque production, seemed like overkill given the many earlier gestures at the sexual violence and violation practiced against women.

More recently, I found myself questioning the use of nudity again, this time in a production of Wedekind’s Lulu, adapted by Nicholas Wright and directed by Christopher Healey at Arlington, VA’s Clark Street Playhouse.  In the final scene of this performance, Jack the Ripper enters fully naked twice, the second time covered in Lulu’s blood and carrying her heart which he has just cut out.  Wedekind’s text does not state that the actor playing Jack should be naked, so either Wright added it into his adaptation or it fit with Healey’s vision for this production.  I was not expecting the actor to appear nude, so it was surprising and unfortunately detracted from my sensitivity to what was happening to Lulu, ie. her imminent murder.  Reflecting on the scene afterwards, however, I could also see some purposes served by the actor’s nudity–it reinforced the fact that Jack murdered Lulu during a sexual encounter and it underlined his baseness and savagery.

Then, last week I saw Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play, directed by Les Waters, currently running at the Lyceum Theater in New York.  In the final scene of the play, Mrs. Givings takes her husband outside in the snow and undresses him completely; she removes only her dress, leaving on the substantial layers that were Victorian women’s undergarments.  While the scene itself was beautiful and whimsical, for sure, in an otherwise naturalistic, timepiece play, I wasn’t sure what to make of Dr. Givings’ nakedness.  Was this meant to be a literal gesture symbolic of the stripping away of his rigid obsession with work and his awakening to his own wife’s needs, after spending the greater portion of the play inadvertently pleasuring other men’s wives under the well-meant guise of Victorian science?  Or was this just a titillating way to end a play with a titillating title? And could this scene not have been done just as effectively if both actors were undressed down to their undergarments?

I am by no means calling for ‘G’ rated theatre.  Not even close.  But I am concerned that theatre makers not feel compelled to ‘throw in’ some nudity, or similarly, ‘throw in’ some violence, just to try and hold its own against film or to lure in audiences.


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