Music by Damon Intrabartolo
Book and Lyrics by Jon Hartmere
Directed by Stafford Arima
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
I have taught in urban high schools for the past eight years and have heard many stories from many students about being bullied and have been asked many important questions about coming out by LGBT students. One of the most touching queries came at an open house for middle school students trying to decide which high school to attend. After several questions about availability of Advanced Placement classes, number of science labs, and homework policy, a diminutive eighth-grader fixed his gaze upon mine and asked simply, “Will I be safe at this school?” As much as I wanted to offer him reassurance, I could not and chose to proffer a list of school policies about bullying instead.
High School is far too often not a safe place, particularly for those who are, in the words of Sister Joan in “Bare,” different, outsiders, strangers. “They fear the stranger” she tells Peter as he tries to sort out his unrequited love for Jason. It is Peter and Jason’s love affair that is at the heart of this reimagined “Bare,” currently playing at New World Stages. Peter is an out and proud gay young man. Jason is closeted and still dealing with his discovery of his authentic sexual status. Taylor Trensch (Peter) and Jason Hite (Jason) portray these passionate and loving Catholic boarding school teenage boys with sensitivity and compassion. Their love is complicated and challenged by friends, family, and faith and these three monumental forces ultimately derail the love affair between these latter day Montague-Capulet style lovers whose relationship is frustrated by the stars.
Their friends at the boarding school, particularly the boys, are portrayed as universally homophobic and this seems unlikely. However, the conflict is needed to bring the script to a climax. Jason’s father would not understand his son’s sexual status and Jason would not be likely to come out to his father whose only supportive mantra is, “Be a man!” This is not only hetreonormative but indicative of gender identity issues. On the other hand, Jason’s sister Nadia tries to protect her brother by stealing a cell phone which has an image of Jason and Peter kissing. Barrett Wilbert Weed capably exemplifies the quintessence of moral ambiguity throughout her performance as Nadia and delivers perhaps the most authentic performance in “Bare.”
All of the teenagers in “Bare” struggle with the meaning of faith: they want desperately to “find their way” through the mazes of doubt, despair, and decision-making. They search for help from a God they have been taught is there for them; however, their legitimate doubt wants to know, “Are you there?” And in “A Million Miles from Heaven” they also cry out to know “when things will get better.” For Jason and Peter, this is an authentic religious issue. Teens with a faith commitment need to know whether there is a divine being and if that being really cares about them. As Sister Joan and Peter attempt to commuicate to Father Mike, they need authenticity and empathy. Unfortunately, Sister Joan, like her 15th century namesake Joan of Arc, is chastised and punished (transferred) for insubordination, heterodoxy (unorthodoxy), and heresy by the homophobic clergy.
In its current incarnation, “Bare” successfully portrays teens suffering from a mild to severe angst about identity and future but needs to be more hard-hitting and edgy especially in relationship to the church. The creators and creative team need to clarify that the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, as well as that of other mainline religious denominations, is simply wrongheaded and perhaps even evil. The church needs to “kiss the broken hearts” of teens like Jason and Peter and not condemn them.
The trope of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” serves the book, music, and lyrics of “Bare” with authority and hegemony but is somewhat defrauded at the musical’s critical moment: Jason’s suicide. Jason’s death should have followed through with the death scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” The white light through the portal to heaven trivializes the powerful moment of Jason’s redemptive death. This should be the cathartic moment for Peter to inexorably snag the role of Juliet.
Everything works in this production of “Bare:” music, books and lyrics, direction, choreography, set, costumes, lighting, and sound. All that is needed is a better resolution to Jason’s death: his suicide should not honor traditional religious after-life white light imagery. Taylor Trensch’s Peter can handle the scene all on his own.