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The same motifs were uncovered at West Hollywood's Globe Theater in the recent Strip! Bare-ly Legal. Masterminded by Madame Dish (also known as Steven J. McCarthy), the show not only contained nudity, but proclaimed its intention to
"celebrate nudity." Dish elucidates: "The actors performed nude, and the audience had the opportunity to experience that same sensation as a total environmental piece by shedding their clothes and inhibitions in the amateur strip. For too many years, gay theater was only about AIDS, and certainly AIDS still is the most important issue facing our community. However, many of us forgot how to have fun. We have finally started to have fun again."
"The plethora of naked plays hit just after the 'second wave' of AIDS plays," explains Jacobson. "I think the audience was in the mood to be cheered up, and reminded that there were still beautiful bodies in the world and somebody was still having sex."
David Roman, author of Acts of Intervention, a book chronicling theatrical representations of AIDS, says, "Two different impulses for representing gay male nudity in light of AIDS emerged in the late 1980s: nudity to demystify the effects of AIDS and nudity as a re-politicization of gay sexuality."
The first onslaught of AIDS plays (As Is, The Normal Heart) often "suppressed explicit gay sexuality, including nudity," according to Roman, "to accommodate a wider audience."
The work of Robert Chesley (Night Sweat, Jerker), performed in the mid-'80s, defied what the playwright often decried as "prudishness." His characters were defiantly sexual and dramatically naked. Yet, like most gay theater, Chesley's work was marginalized, largely because of its unapologetic stance. (Chesley's Stray Dog Story is currently playing at the St. Genesius Theater.)
Many performance artists stirred similar responses. The NEA furor over Tim Miller's work, much of it AIDS-focused, was surely fueled by his determination to appear naked onstage. Ron Athey, publicly HIV-positive, not only appears onstage nude, but some performances incorporate his infected blood. According to Roman, this is where gay theater and AIDS activism meld: "These artists, like Kushner's play and Chesley's work, refuse to comply with the deeply rooted cultural anxieties about queer bodies."
Even though the proliferation of nudity seems to be a response to AIDS, particularly in light comedies featuring a bevy of musclebound hunks (Ronnie Larsen's Making Porn, for example), AIDS inevitably remains the recurring backdrop for most gay playwrights.
While Angels in America reached a crossover audience, most gay theater containing nudity, whether depicting AIDS or not, is sequestered in smaller venues. Although playwright Terrence McNally would cringe at the queer-theater label, the commercial and artistic success of his Love! Valour! Compassion! provided a blueprint for aspiring gay playwrights: Fire Island, nudity and AIDS.
Not surprisingly, economics is the loudest answer to most of the artistic and ethical quandaries about nudity onstage. "In 1998, the gay community is often imagined as a gay market and not necessarily as a community invested in progressive social change," reflects Roman. "The politics of liberation that characterized early gay organizing has been eclipsed by the politics of consumerism."
In other words, nudity sells, and the size of the audience does matter. If there is a message to be delivered in gay theater as we enter the new century, one can be almost certain the messenger will be giving a balls-out performance.
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