REVIEW: Body Awareness (Profiles Theatre)

Profound storytelling at Profiles

 

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Profiles Theatre presents
   
Body Awareness
 
by Annie Baker
directed by
Benjamin Thiem
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 27th  |  tickets: $30-$34  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

The dilemma would vex Solomon: How to make sure you are seen without also being judged? Admitted or not, it’s a query that niggles at the very core of existence, a philosophical battle embedded in situations ranging from first dates to, arguably, last rites. Nobody wants to be invisible. But with visibility, there is an inevitable degree of objectification. Or is there?

Annie Baker’s Body Awareness puts the debate in terms as complex as they are hilarious and ironic. Directed by Benjamin Thiem for Profiles Theatre, this is the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner: The story is ultra-compelling, the characters are people you care about and recognize.  As for the fraught moral fog they attempt to navigate in dealing with issues of body, self, sexuality and fidelity, it’s the stuff of real life, minus the boring parts.

body-aware03 The conflict simmers toward boil-over when lesbian high school instructor Joyce (Barb Stasiw) starts bleaching, plucking and pruning a in preparation for a naked photo shoot.  Her partner Phyllis (Cheryl Graeff) quickly blows a righteous feminist gasket over the situation:  Joyce, Phyllis rails, is caving in to the demands of the “male gaze.”  By so succumbing, Phyllis threatens, Joyce is committing an unforgivable act.

So, is bleaching one’s mustache an act of willful subjugation to the patriarchal hierarchy? If one shaves ones legs before baring them in public, is one reinforcing the sort of deeply damaging objectification that turns women into sex objects  and nothing more? Or is the whole culture of plucking/waxing/bleaching/powdering/ad infinitum just indicative of an elevated sort of self-care? After all, if Joyce feels ugly walking around hirsute and au naturelle, surely it’s her right to make herself feel better (and beautiful) by breaking out the depilatories. As the questions roar, the undertone of ironic comedy is unmistakable. Who knew the simple act of plucking one’s unibrow could be so fraught with political implications?

Playwright Baker isn’t satisfied to simply frame a heated debate in terms of a highly literate lesbian couple. (Joyce is a high school teacher, Phyllis a college professor.) Body Awareness benefits hugely from the character of Joyce’s son Jared (Eric Burgher, all tightly wound nerves and frustrated anger),  a self-proclaimed “autodidact” with the social skills of a hermit with Tourette’s. In his early 20s, Jared still lives at home, has never had a date and when he’s not at McDonald’s slinging burgers, spends all of his time poring over the Oxford English Dictionary.

The three are thrown into an emotional vortex with the arrival of Body Awareness Week at Phyllis’  Bennington College-like campus. Amid the feminist puppet shows, the refugee camp dance companies, and the scholarly lectures on feminist paradigms in post-modern literature arrives photographer Frank (Joe Jahraus), a lensman who roams the country taking nude photos of women, including very young women.

Phyllis is appalled and all but calls Frank a kiddie-pornographer. Frank insists he empowers women by allowing them to shed their inhibitions (and their clothes.)  Joyce is intrigued, and eventually decides to pose herself. As for Jared, he turns to Frank for some blunt advice about getting girls.

Through it’s 85-minute run time, Body Awareness is seamless merger of a terrific text and an equally deft ensemble. Graeff completes a hat trick with the production. Coming on the heels of The Mercy Seat (our review) and Graceland (our review), this is her third role running at Profiles that defines the very notion of excellence. As Phyllis, she’s an intricate mix of braininess and elitist, of fiercely loyal partner and extremely frustrated de facto step-parent. She’s got a wry, dead-pan delivery that is priceless, yet for all Phyllis’ practical cynicism, Graeff never lets the audience lose sight of the woman’s deeply caring heart.

body-aware02Burgher also builds on a body of work that is ever more impressive, instilling Jared with the raw, raging hurt of a wounded animal and the obnoxious intellect of an idiot-savant. He’s also got a killer sense of comic timing. If you missed him in Men of Tortuga, Things We Said Today, or Graceland (we will never again be able to look at a decorative fruit arrangement without having an involuntary spit-take), this is your chance to see a young actor rapidly approaching the height of his considerable powers.

Then there’s Jahraus as the photographer/interloper.  Understated, slightly arrogant and slightly hostile, he’s a fine fulcrum for trouble. As Joyce, Barb Stasiw is a stand-in for Everywoman of a Certain Age, caught between the limitless demands of her  troubled child and the feminist ideology of her partner.

Thiem has the ensemble in seamless formation throughout, spinning a story of compelling ideas and vivid characters. If you leave Body Awareness mulling the implications of the dreaded male gaze, well, good for you. But for all its feminist theory and academic setting, Body Awareness is mostly a fine slice of storytelling.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½