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September 12, 2016
Review: Torn Out Theater Presents Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

[L-R] Xila Noir, Erin Michelle, and Max Arsenault. (Credit: Charles Ardai)
[L-R] Xila Noir, Erin Michelle, and Max Arsenault. (Credit: Charles Ardai)
Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to Shakespeare I'm a bit of a purist. I think the texts hold their own just fine, thank you, without the frills and over-the-top gimmicks many modern directors decide to pile on. When I saw that a theater company was putting on a production of The Tempest in which "some characters start out clothed, but all are fully nude by the end of the play," I was intrigued, certainly, and cautiously optimistic. Is it a gimmick? Is it shock value? ...Is it feminist? A couple of weeks later, I found myself sitting criss-cross-applesauce in the dirt while a troupe of ladies pranced and jiggled in front of me and a rapt audience at the Prospect Park Music Pagoda, and to be honest, I'm still not sure that I've landed on any answers.

Wednesday marked the first of a four night run (September 7-10) from Torn Out Theater. Their production of one of Shakespeare's final plays is staged in a fairly large clearing flanked by the concrete Pagoda, woods, and a meandering pedestrian path, which ensured a steady stream of curious passersby. And the players wasted no time in getting down to the business of getting down to their birthday suits; I arrived a mere five minutes after the 5:30 start time to find that the Pagoda was packed, and Prospero and Miranda were already waxing poetic au naturel.It's a spirited and fast paced production (all the swifter due to a slight streamlining of the script - a subplot about Caliban, the monstrous son of the evil witch Sycorax, is axed), and it feels critical to note that all of the actors seemed comfortable with their roles as well as in their own skin.

Prospero (Gina Marie Russell) offered cool command of the text (featuring some of the play's most quotable lines (e.g. "We are such stuff as dreams are made of"), while Sebastian (Suzannah Gratz) and Antonio (Clara Kundin) offered comic relief as a bumbling, power hungry duo. Miranda (Elizabeth Gilbert) and Ferdinand (Kara Lynn) are cute as a pair, and seemed to have fun as an over-the-top, ecstatic manifestation of love at first sight -- a happier part of Miranda's father, Prospero's, enchanted machinations to reclaim his rightful place as the Duke of Milan.

Ariel and her three fellow "airy spirits" (dancers Elven Arrow, Erin Michelle, and Xila Noir), all covered head to toe in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of paint, were one of the play's most enjoyable elements, their nudity blending most naturally into the production. As Ariel, Reanna Roane tackles the role with an unrivaled energy, and a curiously modern affect that adds to the surreal feeling of the entire event. The juxtaposition of the quartet's more angular modern dance moves with their loose, flowing entrances and exits added a true otherworldliness to their characters, and one scene in which they enchant their royal captives is particularly witchy and thrilling.

The production enthusiastically boasts an all-female cast, female musicians, and a largely female crew, and is the joint vision of directors Pitr Strait and Alice Mottola, so girl power abounds from both on and off the stage. Still, it will no doubt spur debate (which is never a bad thing); is the nudity useful? Is it helpful to the cause of body positivity? Or is it a superfluous, lurid delight-- something to be gawked at? I, for one, was disappointed to discover my brain wallowing to the basest depths. I couldn't manage to forget that the players were naked -- on the contrary, I sometimes found myself so distracted studying the particulars of the passing anatomy that I lost track of the plot.

But in erudite conclusion-- why the hell not? Watching the show, you can't help but be impressed with the bal-- ahem, ovaries it takes to run around in the buff in front of a bunch of complete strangers, several of whom stumbled upon the performance entirely by accident. These woman lent their bodies for our entertainment, and offered us a brief escape from run-of-the-mill that skirts the line between intellectual and indecent, bawdy and brilliant, and will no doubt be something we'll all bring up in conversation for a good, long while.

Some helpful tips for the performance--

The show starts at 5:30 on the dot, and gets crowded. If you can't arrive at least 20 minutes early to claim a seat in the concrete pagoda, bring a comfy blanket and be prepared to sit on the ground.

Wear bug spray.

Bring your kids? This is Brooklyn after all, and you certainly won't be the only one to do so. Healthy introduction to nudity at a young age-- very European.

Smoking weed is not encouraged, but based on the clouds that wafted over me, not out of the question.

Don't take pictures -- seriously, don't be that pervy audience member.

Watch out for the basket that gets passed around at the end, and donate generously. May nude experimental American Shakespeare live on forever!

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Written by: Emily Gawlak
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