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If it hasn’t done anything else, the local arrival of Naked Boys Singing! has made some D.C. theatergoers wonder why watching an underdressed nonet bounce through an underdeveloped bunch of show tunes doesn’t seem particularly outrageous. Having wondered, they’ll have realized: From flashy Broadway tours to major stagings of Greek classics, from lavishly upholstered revenge tragedies at the Shakespeare Theatre to seder-inspired family dramedies at Theater J, there’s been an awful lot of skin showing on Washington stages lately. And whether it’s something in the water or actually something in the nature of a trend, the most recent rash of onstage nudity is enough to make a critic contemplate what risk there is in baring all for an audience—and ask whether the payoff is worth the perils.

The first nude scene was probably written centuries ago—some sources point to Ben Jonson’s 17th-century play Bartholomew Fair—and seeing an actor in the altogether hasn’t been genuinely shocking since Marat/Sade and Hair finally dispatched the nudity taboo in the ’60s. It wasn’t much later that Equus trotted out its pair of angst-ridden teens au naturel, and from there on it was no holds barred. Even in D.C., there have been other periods when a turn in the buff was par for the course: Veteran Arena Stage patrons will remember a late-’70s run of shows—Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, David Rabe’s Streamers, David Hare’s Plenty, Michael Weller’s Loose Ends (with Kevin Kline, no less, displaying his assets)—that had lobby wits speculating about how much manhood was likely to be in evidence on any given evening.

So the recent abundance of flesh—in local productions as diverse as Privates on Parade and The Duchess of Malfi, Killer Joe and The Trojan Women, Big Love and Bat Boy, the Musical—isn’t exactly revolutionary. What’s different is the context—and the competition.

From the beginning, there’s usually been an argument to be made for the dramatic impact of a given nude scene (the curious squalor of Oh! Calcutta! always excepted). The furor that greeted Marat/Sade’s London debut couldn’t eclipse the power of stage pictures that put the torments of a starkers Ian Richardson front and center. Likewise, the fuss over the depiction of naked teenagers in Equus couldn’t detract from what the play had to say about the stripping away of a troubled kid’s defenses.

But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a new genre emerged—call it the gay confessional—in which disrobing became pretty much de rigueur. In such one-man shows as The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me and My Queer Body, performers (often the authors) got naked to get real. The notion seemed to be that baring the body equaled baring the soul, or that the shedding of (homo)sexual shame demanded the near-ritualistic shedding of everything, including clothing, that might signal inhibition or repression. It was too overt a metaphor to be interesting for more than a few minutes, but it was enough of a success with audiences that it became almost a defining characteristic of such shows. And as playgoers learned to expect that moment of “truth,” it became the de facto point of too many such evenings.

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The inevitable result was David Dillon’s Party, an inconsequential little comedy involving a birthday-party game of truth or dare that ends with a room full of naked guys doing jumping jacks and singing show tunes. The 1992 play was, of course, hugely successful, and together with its offspring—Making Porn, Naked Boys Singing!, and the like—it forever changed the complexion of onstage nudity. What was once a nervy device used sparingly and metaphorically had become a cheeky little gimmick used to drive ticket sales—and those who doubt the effect on “legit” theater need look no further than Take Me Out, the Broadway-bound gays-in-baseball play that sends its players off to the showers more often than Tony LaRussa in the middle of a losing streak.

Make no mistake: Getting naked is still no joke, even in a show as lighthearted as Naked Boys. The cast of the popular revue has had to cope with everything from cosmetic concerns—one actor returned from a ski trip with “a grapefruit-size bruise on his right ass-cheek,” and another “has had the same zit for the entire run”—to its underheated Source Theatre space. “The backstage is littered with blankets and comforters,” director Jeff Keenan reports. “I walk upstairs at intermission, and there are six Naked Boys huddled under a thin blanket on a futon, like seals on a rock in Northern California.”

Actors stress about their bodies the way anyone else does. “What statement are people going to think I’m making by doing this?” actor Christopher Henley says he wonders when he contemplates a part that calls for nudity. (That was Henley being tortured with dripping candle wax in the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Marat/Sade a few years back; it was also Henley baring it all in Killer Joe, a trailer-trash tragicomedy staged two seasons ago by Cherry Red Productions.) “Are they going to think I think I’ve got some kind of hot body? Are they going to think I’m some kind of exhibitionist? Are they going to think I have a shitty body, and I’m oblivious to it? If I were in my 20s doing this, I wouldn’t have that extra [fear] of Are people gonna say, ‘Who wants to see your saggy butt?’”

And, of course, men doing frontal nudity onstage tend to obsess about how they’ll measure up. “There’s more to judge,” says Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn.

And, yes, since you ask: The guys do take the matter into their own hands. “I do not employ a fluffer,” says Keenan. “Which is not to say that each performer is not inherently aware of his appearance, or that each one doesn’t take that appearance very seriously.”

Ian Allen, whose Cherry Red Productions has been responsible for various bold bits of nudity—including such apparitions as a 7-foot talking phallus (actor Richard Renfield, stark naked save for a prosthetic foam penis-head and an enormous pair of Fun Foam bollocks where his boots ought to be)—is markedly less coy: He says he tells cast members, “‘If you see so-and-so backstage with a warm towel, don’t think twice. He’s taking care of his business; you go take care of yours somewhere else.’”

What’s more troubling than body-image worries to some actors—and to many others who take theater seriously—is the fact that audiences sometimes have trouble seeing past a bit of bare skin. “Most of the comments I got were along the lines of, ‘I saw you nude,’” says Kate Eastwood Norris, who broke her own personal bare barrier in Woolly Mammoth’s Big Love last year. “And for the whole rest of the play—roughly two hours—I did all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with being nude, and yet that’s what people remember. So that

was disappointing.”

Perhaps that’s because nudity can sometimes seem dangerously concrete in what is, after all, an art that relies heavily on gesture. Theater isn’t nearly as literal as most cinema; it demands a good deal of the audience’s imagination, and when an imagination is asked to wrap itself around a naked body, the results can be difficult to predict. And theater’s more intimate than film: Actors and audience share the same space, breathe the same air, and another naked human in such proximity frequently pushes buttons we’d rather not acknowledge. In service to an intense theatrical moment, that can be profoundly useful; used casually, it distracts the audience from what’s happening onstage.

Just ask anyone who’s seen The Last Seder, which opened last weekend at Theater J. Actor Bill Hamlin, playing an Alzheimer’s-stricken paterfamilias, has a moment of nudity that’s played for both comedy and poignancy. But it comes early, before playwright Jennifer Maisel has had a chance to do much character development, and even the most thoughtful audience member will inevitably lose track of the plot at least briefly, led astray by thoughts of how much nerve it must take for an older actor to stagger around without his trousers on.

An actor’s relative celebrity can be a big part of the equation, too. In a play such as the current Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, for instance, “we see naked actors and we think, Oh, that’s what Edie Falco’s breasts look like!” says Chicago-based playwright Jeff Sweet. It’s less of a factor when the actor is a relative unknown, but too often, as Sweet puts it, “the first several minutes take us out of the metaphoric and invite us to speculate about the literal. And that’s anti-theatrical.”

It’s a risk many directors and playwrights are more than willing to take, however. In the Trojan Women staged at the Shakespeare Theatre in 1999, for example, director JoAnne Akalaitis opened the show with an unscripted sequence in which female prisoners were herded into what could have been a concentration-camp holding area. Many of their heads had been shaved; some of them were naked. One of them had clearly, to judge by her expression and behavior, just been raped by a guard. She staggered to a shower tap and scrubbed herself repeatedly, distractedly, obsessively, and you could hear breath being drawn in around the Lansburgh auditorium. As a stage image, it remains among the most powerful of any presented in D.C. in the last decade.

“It’s like when you’re staging a musical,” says Kahn. “You need to get the emotion strong enough that they have to sing. I feel the same way about nudity: Whatever’s going on finally has to lead to something like that. You can’t just throw it in.”

Kahn and actor Kelly McGillis created such a heightened moment in the classic revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi last season, in a scene that found McGillis’ title character confronted in her own bedroom by her possessive, overbearing brother, Ferdinand, who was outraged that she’d married below her station and without his formal consent.

“We had decided, and I think [playwright John] Webster had decided, that one of the reasons Ferdinand behaves that way is that he has unconscious incestuous feelings about his sister, his twin,” Kahn says. “It was very important for the duchess to call Ferdinand on these feelings that he didn’t know about. And she didn’t have any lines to do that, so we decided she would be sexual with him to show him, to make him face what it is he’s doing.”

So as the argument reached its peak, McGillis’ duchess threw open her dressing gown to reveal her breasts—an act not of desperation or humiliation or transfiguration, but of confrontation and aggression, a gesture embodying all manner of ideas about aristocracy, womanhood, passion, and power. “We could not have achieved what I wanted to do with the duchess and Ferdinand without that,” Kahn reflects. “We tried all kinds of things before that, her grabbing his hand and so on, and it was all too minor, too little….And yet because the scene was meant to shock a character, the audience was more shocked. And that was right for me, because it’s such an extreme play.”

Yet there’s a risk in trading on the broad societal assumption that nudity equals sexuality, one that shows such as Party and Naked Boys use to their advantage in their advertising campaigns—even though Naked Boys, once you’re in the house, quickly reveals itself to be about desexualizing its saucy content. (After all, you can watch a bunch of naked muscle queens pirouetting through musical comedy routines for only so long before they stop looking like sex objects.)

Such mixed marketing signals may be coaching some audiences to think of theater the way we used to think of burlesque: as a kind of naughty entertainment targeted less at the head than at parts south. Many theater professionals admit to occasional worries about whether nudity is being overused these days—or whether it’s always treated with enough respect. “In some plays—I don’t understand why—it does seem to be an extra-hip thing to do, to get people nude,” says Norris.

Still, it’s probably too early to sound the alarm just yet. “Nudity is a tool,” says actor Henley. And like many of the other theatrical devices contemporary writers like to play with, skin, he says, “is getting used in much more sophisticated ways, even as it’s also being kind of exploited in some of these shows where it’s the gimmick, the calling card….It can take a situation to another level of vulnerability, of heightenedness, of investment by the actor and the audience. And I think that hasn’t been lost because it’s been happening so frequently.” CP