Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s get to the point.
Watching and seeing and talking about sex is just about everywhere in our world. And the world of live theater is no exception, although sex and intimacy on stage has always proved problematic for the world of theater.
This season we have seen two examples of sex and intimacy on stages in Milwaukee and nothing could be more dramatically different than the two shows. And examining them shines a light on how theater deals with these scenes. And it also kind of points to how damaging a sense of political correctness can be to the world of theater.
The first example is the production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune,” staged in September at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre under the direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr. The show featured Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning as a couple of misfits who hook up. There was plenty of intimacy and even some nudity.
And the scenes resounded with genuine emotion, especially for anyone who is even moderately familiar with real sexual activity. There was some touching, some awkwardness, a little humor and some real satisfaction, all the stuff that normally accompanies sex.
It was on the stage but it seemed like the real stuff.
The contrasting production was “Sex With Strangers,” staged in October by Renaissance Theaterworks, under the direction of Mallory Metoxen. The show contained a number of sexually charged scenes between Marti Gobel and Nick Narcisi – the older woman, younger man dynamic.
Renaissance hired accomplished fight choreographer Christopher Elst as the intimacy choreographer” and also got help from Tonia Sina, the founder and President of Intimacy Directors International.
The idea behind this concept is to strictly choreograph intimate moments, much as fights are choreographed. The whole thing was born of the best of intentions – avoiding the kind of sexual harassment or romantic entanglements that happen in the theater world.
“Keeping actors safe” has become a byword and a rallying cry, and it’s a worthy sentiment and goal. Just as productions are careful not to let an actor be burned by a light, crushed by a piece of scenery or cut during a swordfight, actors should be safe when they kiss or rub or have sex with each other.
The problem arose, in the Renaissance production, when it became apparent that the sexual contact was boring. It was like watching two manikins be put through their caressing paces.
Ms. Gobel is a passionate actor, full of emotional skills. Mr. Narcisi, although new tome, is most likely equally able, so this is not their fault.
And I don’t think the fault lies with Mr. Elst.
Ms. Metoxen is a brilliant young director but part of the task of a director is to recognize what happens on the stage through the eyes of the audience. I’d be willing to bet that she saw that these scenes of passion were missing something – passion – but was burdened by the political correctness of intimacy choreography.
I’m not saying that intimacy choreography should not be part of a production. But I am saying that it’s harder than it looks and unless it’s done well, the audience becomes lost amid passion that is vacant of any heat.
I am a firm believer that theater, especially regional theater, is not a competitive sport, yet lots of people still think that awards are an important element and an indicator of the vibrancy of a local theater scene.
One of the awards programs is sponsored by Broadway World, a weekly theater roundup site that has a main edition and then a local one for 130 regions in the country. There is usually some interesting stuff on the site, including reviews by such luminaries by the brilliant Charles Isherwood, who got sacked by the New York Times for no apparent reason.
Broadway World is now sending out emails and other promotions of the voting for the Broadway World annual local awards. They have released the results so far. A glance through the nominees clearly shows how phony this whole thing is.
Let’s take a look at the “Best Actor in a Play” category.
Running away with the voting is Adam Qutaishat, (All In Productions) followed closely by Zach Sharrock (Lake County Playhouse) and Mark Neufang (SummerStage of Delafield).
I don’t know the top three – all young community theater actors – but they are crushing seven Equity actors, all of who could be ranked as world class performers with years of training and experience behind them. The seven are Anthony Crivello (The Rep), James Ridge (APT), Jim DeVita (APT), Di’Monte Henning (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre), Matt Zambrano (The Rep), Marcus Truschinski (APT) and Reese Madigan (Next Act.
Take a look at the Best Actress in a Play voting results.
Beth Perry (Waukesha Civic Theatre), Cathy Marshall (Sunset Playhouse) and Ruth Arnell (Waukesha Civic Theatre) are running away with it. They are beating a dozen highly trained and experienced women. Marcee Doherty-Elst (Renaissance) Susan Varela (MCT), Carrie Hitchcock (Next Act), Kelly Doherty (Next Act), Linda Stephens (The Rep), Hollis Resnik (The Rep), Kelsey Brennan (APT), Karen Estrada (Next Act) and Janie Brookshire).
Don’t even get me started on the “Best Play” category features “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar at The Rep, trailing productions from Waukesha Civic, Sunset, SummerStage, Luminous, and All In productions. Disgraced, by the way, won The Pulitzer Prize.
I don’t mean to demean any of the people in these categories, but they are illustrative of the perils of trying to do this in a place like Milwaukee or Wisconsin. These awards are obviously not based on any kind of merit, but rather which organization can get its fans out to vote.
It’s silly to try and have a theater awards show in Milwaukee, mainly because it’s virtually impossible to get a panel of judges who could make informed decisions. Generally, people who go to play in Milwaukee go to one, or maybe two, theaters. You can’t possibly get a vote that means anything from people who don’t see all (or even most) of the nominees.
I’d like to see organizations that want to have awards work harder to generate support and additional funding for local theater organizations. That would mean a hell of a lot more than some award that doesn’t mean anything.