Posted by: strugglesome | January 16, 2012

Let’s Get Physical: The Wilma Theater’s Body Awareness

I don’t know how things went down at your university or college, but where I went to school, sometimes it seemed like all we ever talked about was sex. Which is actually what some might call ironic, given that none of us ever seemed to be actually having it. (Except that one couple, in the shower…) But college is very much a time of sexual exploration, especially for students just discovering their sense of self. While high school is marked with social anxieties and parental pressures, college can be a mecca for many fleeing their uptight suburb or glass bubble prep school and figuring out that it’s okay to like boys. Or girls. Or Japanese sex pillows. It’s all good in the hood, right?

Well, kind of. Sometimes. On rare occasions. If you are lucky. Because here is the truth, as one former undergraduate sees it, the more we talk about sex and sexuality, the more complicated it seems to become. Now, I’m of the opinion that sexuality has always been this complicated, and we are only noticing this now because it’s more socially acceptable to voice one’s discomfort and concerns, rather than repress them. Still, if any place is a safe place, it ought to be a college campus, where learning is respected and exploration is encouraged. Right? At least, that’s the supposition we arm ourselves with at the start of Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, currently running at the Wilma Theater.

So what do we do when, in an effort to make people feel comfortable with their sexuality and sense of self, we jeopardize our own? All of Annie Baker’s works thus far have been set in a Vermont of her imagination, and this one blends Middlebury with every other small liberal arts college in the Northeast to create one super-politically correct rural hipster school, soaked in New England charm and awkward silences. It’s Body Awareness Week at Shirley College, a mythical school in Vermont filled with eager young students ready to debunk heternormative expectations and really get to know themselves. At least, that’s what psychology professor Phyllis (Grace Gonglewski) is hoping. But while the campus hums with visions of Palestinian refuge camp dance troupes and folk music duos, all is not as idyllic in Phyllis’ home life. Her girlfriend of three years, Joyce (Mary Martello) is having some issues with her son, Jared (Dustin Ingram). Problems like he threatens to kill her when he gets annoyed, has trouble relating to other human beings, and pays too much for porn (seriously, has this guy not heard about the internet?). In short, physiologist Phyllis is convinced that Jared has Asberger’s syndrome, and given that he can define empathy word-perfect (he thinks the dictionary is a fun read) but can’t actually empathize, she might just be right. But it isn’t until free-wheeling Frank Bonitatibus(Christopher Coucill) comes into town, a guest artist for Body Awareness week who takes nude photos of women of all walks of life, that things really come to a head. But hey, isn’t deep emotional trauma what college is all about?

For such a young playwright, Annie Baker already commands a lion’s share of street cred. So it’s interesting to look at this work, her first, in the limited frame of her two other plays. Baker is lucky enough, and talented enough, to do something before the age of 30 that most writers struggle with through their whole careers, and that is, she has a style that is distinctive and instantly  recognizable. When you see an Annie Baker play, you are going to get some awkward silences. A lot of awkward silences. You are in for a lot of stuttering, a frank and colloquial style of dialogue, unpretentious and spattered with “um” and “yeah”. She doesn’t do lofty, and she doesn’t do grand. Instead we get the unfinished sentences and grasping at straws that so haunt the human experience. We also get some reference to Judaism, which I personally would be very interested to know what the reason for that is (as a pedestrian of the red sea, I get very interested when anyone talks about my fellow tribe members. It’s genetic). And in director Anne Kauffman’s capable hands, Baker’s trademarks and quirks are treated with love and kindness, because, as Phyllis says, “We all want to see ourselves without feeling seen. Or feel seen, without feeling judged”. Paced exquisitely well and cleanly, this production gives this story a neatly elegant world in which to live. Mimi Lien’s crisp and clear set design neatly delineates three separate spaces on the stage, making the interior of Joyce and Phyllis’ home and the classroom of Shirley college two distinct but related worlds. Thom Weaver’s lighting warms and sweetens the stage, while Rosemarie McKelvey’s simple but effective costumes instantly signify what kind of people each one of these characters are. And Robert Kapolowitz’ unobtrusive sound design rounds out the creative team, achieving a totality and effectiveness of design that we should get to see everywhere, but rarely do.

And then there is, of course, the cast. Baker is not, strictly speaking, an actor’s playwright. She can be a bit mean, as it turns out, forcing actors to live in silence (heaven forbid), making them make independent choices, wanted the comedy to emerge from natural human interaction, I mean, the woman is rather cruel, really. Making actors actually work and form real subtexual relationships? Having a world of communication going on beneath the surface of the text? How antiquated of her. Female writers are just the worst. That being said, this phenomenal cast acquits themselves well when confronted with all these challenges. Gonglewski is just fantastic as Phyllis, awkward and indignant and self-righteous and wry. She struts and frets her hour on the stage, joined by the magnificent Martello, who is warm and sweet and equally endearing when she is vainly attempting to discipline her son or crying over the shabbat candles (kindled on a Tuesday, but who’s counted) or giggling over the idea of posing naked. Moreover, these two actresses have more chemistry then most heterosexual couples one sees in real life. They cuddle, they bicker, they scream, but they compliment each other, and while we can thank Baker for that, we can also thank these two talented women for making it work. And then there are the men. Ingram’s Jared is just lovely, painfully awkward and funny, frustratingly troubled but completely understandable, even if he understands next to nothing about other people. And Coucill does an admirable job with a character that Baker doesn’t seem to have fully flushed out, giving his hippie habits a sense of depth and focus not inherent in the text. All together, these four people are a joy to watch, and one can’t help but feel a sense of harmony and safety when they enter the stage. You can trust these people, they are going to get the job done. It’s relaxing, in a delicious way, as much as it is exciting. You can depend on the cast, with Kauffman’s direction, to both soothe and surprise you. It’s like a spa mixed with an obstacle course.

If one can levy a criticism against Baker’s first play, it is that she bites off rather more than she can chew. Frankly, this play bites off rather more than any one play could chew. Gender norms, relationship issues, the purpose of art, the value of language, coming of age, concepts of family and parenthood, sexuality, sense of self, the politics of disabilities, all these things and more and covered in this play. And as a result, none of them get to really be unpacked the way one might wish. The intricacies of Joyce and Phyllis’ relationship, the insecurities associated with the fact that one of them (Joyce) only turned to women from men fairly recently and that she still seems to desire male attention, or at least, male company, all of these issues are addressed but not explored within the world of the dramatic narrative. Jared’s relationship with Frank, while touching, isn’t necessarily backed by any narrative continuity, and Frank, the outsider, the visitor, the most interesting narrative device that Anton Chekhov made a part of our modern understanding of theatrical convention, is hilarious and heartfelt, but less of a total human then a device.

That being said, there is no play that is so perfect that it lives without a single flaw. And while Baker’s first play may not end up being her absolute best, it’s still a generous and hilariously sweet examination of the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the people we love. And all of us could afford to spend a few hours thinking about both of those things. So if you are interested, The Wilma Theater’s Body Awareness runs from now until February 5th. Buy tickets here.

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