By Ian Rigg
Bare: Not clothed or covered.
Without addition; basic and simple.
To uncover and expose to view.
Beginning a piece of writing with a definition may be cliche. But this review is of a musical about definition—how we define ourselves, how others define us, and which side we let win.
In Refuge Theatre Project’s lacerating production of bare: a pop opera, all is laid bare in every sense of these definitions. It’s indicting ignorance. It’s pointing a finger at fear. Fear of outsiders. Fear of being oneself. While it is artistic, it is presented without pretense. Raw, untethered, unhinged, uncovered. Bare.
The company’s previous show, the sentimental and superb High Fidelity, was styled as a pop-up record store in a rented space. For bare, it has gone even further with this “found-space” theory: the musical plays in a church. It is an incredibly bold choice.
Staged in the sanctuary, the religious symbols grant an even greater weight to already heavy material. The church is utilized as it is, bare but not barren. The sole supplements are props, party decorations, and spotlights sparingly secured to the rafters. Pews become dorm rooms, the dais a rave. The programs are glued into ‘hymnals.’
Putting on a show in an old church is not only unique, but a unique challenge. Attention must be paid to technical director Michelle Manni for making the space work and Carleigh Obrochta for stage managing the show without a hitch. (The church’s native lighting plays a part in the lighting scheme, but has to be manually flipped on and off.) The proceedings feel at once enticingly sacrilegious and yet entirely appropriate. The most evocative image is when the cast lifts Peter by his arms, evoking the crucifixion.
Director Matt Dominguez has devised a production to remember. While style and symbolism are essential elements of his vision, Dominguez has put relationships first: the characters’ relationships to one another and their relationships with themselves. The show is impressionistic in its introspection, and while one could call the production high concept or deconstructionist, its emotional earnestness is as down to earth and visceral as it gets. A detailed plot summary and production history may be read here.
Shelby Rebecca Westart has unleashed furious choreography. Punk percussion patters upon the pews. Apoplectic angst fuels the actors as they thrash at theism. But all is not the tender pain of youth in revolt: a dream sequence allows the chance for motown backup singers. The movement is an extension of the characterization and is thus a success.
When nearly the entire cast wears a uniform, it would be easy to dismiss the costume design as less than creative, just like some labeled Breaking Bad (and its cast of bald men) lazy hair design. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Costume designer Morgan Egan is very carefully clever. She knows that in a uniformed school, each student finds their own way to stand out. It’s not what they wear, but how they wear it: even if that’s just the subtlest accessory or the slyest affectation of a rolled sleeve.
Even the phenomenal pit is dressed in cardigans and crimson neckties. She is also smart and symbolic with her color theory: when Anne Marie Lewis sings her stunning solo about loving her son, she is wearing a pink shirt beneath her jacket. At the climax of the show, the characters wear masks for their performance of Romeo and Juliet, a literal representation of the mask they’ve worn their entire lives. It is a beautiful image in a beautiful show.
This play is a pop opera, and thus would be nothing without marvelous music director Michael Evans. The songs range from lovely to lilting to lugubrious to lacerating. Evans has nurtured the native voices of the performers, only pointing them toward a goal with laser precision and power. Most awe-inspiring are the duets and peerless part-singing. As characters run parallel and perpendicular to one another, there’s a lot of chance for their unique voices to overlap. Resonating rapture is the result.
The house is packed with phenomenal performances. Shaun Baer makes it interesting to watch the myopia of the priest, who interestingly goes unnamed, as if to stand in for a larger hypocrisy. He really captures the Catholic homily-style delivery. Jacob Fjare does a bang-up job embodying the particular charming skeeze of a prep-school “pharmacist.” The rapping apothecary and his performance are instrumental. Anne Marie Lewis earns both the ire and the sympathy of the audience as she struggles to accept her son. A. Nikki Greenlee is hilarious as the sardonic Sister Chantelle, someone who it seems never should have been sworn to the cloth and put in charge of children, until a truly heartfelt moment where she counsels and consoles Peter. She plays a secondary role as the Virgin Mary in the form of Diana Ross in one of the show’s most memorable moments (certainly one with the most laughter and levity).
At its core, bare is about 5 central players. Each of them is sensational.
Ryan Armstrong’s Matt is a young man in pain, lovelorn for Ivy and second to Jason. He lashes out in some unhealthy and homophobic ways, but simultaneously empathizes with protagonist Peter. Their duets are among the most compelling, a fantastic blend fueled by a strong onstage kinship. Armstrong lives on the outside too, yearning to be in, and so he breaks in. He has a fantastic voice that is very baroque pop.
Gina Francesca shines as Nadia, twin sister of Jason, who feels the nadir next to her roommate Ivy. Her unhappiness and deep sense of rejection manifests as resentment and a slicing, sarcastic air, which Francesca has a ball with. She writes in the program that the character is very near and dear to her heart, and it shows. Her performance is audacious, acerbic, and anguished. Her big moments are marvelous, but most remarkable are the subtle ones: her rendition of “A Quiet Night at Home” is tremulous and tremendous.
Molly Coleman is sonic ambrosia. Ivy seems the consummate vapid party girl, but Ms. Coleman shows there are layers beneath as the plot peels them back. Her voice is at once delicate and devastating. She is a true troubadour.
Christopher Ratliff must be commended for his turn as Jason. It’s a wonder to watch the war wage within him. He deftly code-switches for survival, and the audience sees the sporty, steely straight guy act give way to who he really is. Yet Ratliff’s character doesn’t want to be who he really is. He’s afraid of what it would cost him. His character causes a great deal of pain, but he works hard to make patrons feel his own pain. Jason suppresses his desires, wants and needs for those imposed upon him. The vocal range the show demands is unforgiving, and he pulls it off with aplomb. It’s as if the pent-up passion within Ratliff has come exploding outward.
Lewis Rawlinson is a revelation. While Jason wants to hide, Peter yearns to express their love freely and express himself freely. Rawlinson’s inspired acting is matched by his sensitive, soaring voice. True, he is the show’s protagonist, but he doesn’t seek the spotlight. The spotlight finds him. He’s a paragon of earnesty, and the audience will feel his love for Jason pulsating through him. The talented young man is an accomplished cellist to boot, and audiences will doubly be treated to his pre-recorded cello filling out the score.
bare debuted in the year 2000, but it still cuts to the core today. Though attitudes are changing and Supreme Court rulings have been made, the aggression that is Bare’s true antagonist remains an antagonist today. A presidential candidate has vowed to repeal the gay marriage ruling. His running mate is a proponent of gay conversion camps (even going so far as to try and divert funding for AIDS research and treatment into these odious programs).
To do some good in the world, the theatre company has teamed up with Project Fierce, an initiative to reduce LGBTQ homelessness on Chicago’s streets. Refuge Theatre Project espouses “musical theatre for real people.” Bare is every inch of that. These people are real. Perhaps that is Refuge Theatre Project’s true mission: to highlight love in all its forms, to illuminate and foster its flame.
Refuge Theatre Project presents “bare: a pop opera” through November 6 at Epworth United Methodist Church, 5253 N. Kenmore Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets ($20) are available here.