Body Awareness

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Editorial Review

‘Body Awareness’: Raising consciousness with laughs
By Nelson Pressley
Friday, August 31, 2012

At first glance, the ingredients of playwright Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness” may seem sitcom simple. Take a Vermont lesbian couple -- Joyce, a high school cultural studies teacher, and Phyllis, a feminist academic -- and their 21- year-old son, Jared, who may have Asperger’s and who trawls the naughty stuff on the Internet. Add an extremely macho visiting artist named Frank Bonitatibus who photographs nude women and girls.

Combine during a consciousness-raising “Body Awareness” week on Phyllis’s progressive campus (Shirley State College). Stir gently.

The result in the easygoing “Body Awareness” is indeed very funny, skewering everything from the professor’s pretensions to the blunt sex talk Frank delivers to Jared (who soothes his non-diagnosed but screamingly obvious disorder by sucking an electric toothbrush). The actors in Eleanor Holdridge’s unflaggingly entertaining production at Theater J plainly love this stuff, and they look good in it: Baker’s dialogue is tart and personable, with just enough unexpected twists in the characterizations to keep you leaning forward.

As with “Circle Mirror Transformation,” seen here two years ago at the Studio Theatre, the pleasures of “Body Awareness” go deeper than the high-concept stereotypes that Baker flirts with. Baker is fast becoming one of the country’s more popular playwrights -- the Studio is producing another of her Vermont plays, “The Aliens,” this fall -- and it may be because she has a lovely ability to comically mock types and trends while exposing the raw seams in her characters.

At Theater J, that’s most evident in Susan Lynskey’s extremely deft and engaging performance as Phyllis. It’s easy to send up the kind of feminism that detects the evil male gaze everywhere, and with her misadventures introducing the pompous programming on campus, the character could easily come across as a brittle joke.

But Lynskey doesn’t settle for a lampoon, not even when the creepy Frank trips her jealousy wire as he inevitably begins to get his hooks in Joyce (who is vulnerable to Frank’s come-ons in part because of Phyllis’s snobbery and ultimatums). Broad as she is, this Phyllis is too bruised for pure satire; Lynskey is attuned to Baker’s clues about the hurt and fragility knocking Phyllis off balance, and the actress’s reflectiveness draws you in.

Holdridge’s ensemble are all in sync on this point: The people have real problems couched in funny business. Punch lines are landed cleanly by one and all, and you get to know the figures so well that even the well-timed revving up of the toothbrush gets laughs. Adi Stein, acting with terse aggressiveness, is especially riotous as Jared, whose explosions are particularly vicious. Jared’s mother, Joyce, comes in for some of the sharpest insults, but Jared’s absence of social skills also leads to a severe puncturing of political correctness as the kid, in one of Baker’s most wicked moments, sabotages his own employment at McDonald’s.

MaryBeth Wise does lovely work as Joyce, the fretful mother and seemingly junior partner in the romantic relationship. (The psychological beats within the cozy house, which has a Pottery Barn vibe in Daniel Ettinger’s calculatedly rustic set, are splendidly timed all night.) Michael Kramer juicily renders the ludicrous Frank as a dude in boots and jeans with a self-serving outlaw stance on his nude pix -- er, art.

There are moments when Baker seems to force the awkwardness, particularly when Frank first intrudes on the already idiosyncratic household. But mainly the agendas joust pleasingly, with Baker’s fragile warriors comically, and even touchingly, stabbing at sense.

Working toward theater equity
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 24, 2012

After years as an itinerant director, traveling the country to helm a colorful array of productions, Eleanor Holdridge opted to set up home base in Washington. The Baltimore native became the head of the directing program at Catholic University in 2010 and moved to the area full time last year.

Only then did she make a worrisome discovery about her new home.

“I was on this panel and I started looking at the numbers, and basically in D.C. theaters, under 20 percent of the playwrights are women and under 20 percent of the directors are women, and four theaters in the upcoming season have no women directors or playwrights,” Holdridge says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I moved to this town and maybe I shouldn’t have.’ ”

As if on cue, the following morning Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks reported that Ryan Rilette, the new artistic director at Round House Theatre, was rethinking the season, replacing two plays because, in part, he was troubled by the absence of female voices.

If the move was an early indicator of a sea change, Holdridge sees Theater J as among the trailblazers. For her second outing with the group, she will direct the four-person play “Body Awareness” by Annie Baker, who also wrote “Circle Mirror Transformation” (part of Studio Theatre’s 2010-11 season).

The story follows Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) and Phyllis (Susan Lynskey), a lesbian couple living in a fictional Vermont college town with a 20-something son (Adi Stein), who may have Asperger’s syndrome. Their lives are upended by the arrival of Frank (Michael Kramer), a visiting artist whose contribution to the university’s Body Awareness Week is a series of nude photographs of the female form.

“Phyllis has this knee-jerk reaction, like, ‘Oh, he’s a guy who’s taking pictures of nude women. He has to be exploiting them,’ ” Holdridge says. “Well, is he?”

It’s not entirely clear. Joyce doesn’t share her partner’s rage, and the line between right and wrong tends to blur. This is not a straightforward case of good vs. evil -- or women vs. men.

And that’s something Holdridge says she appreciates about the play. The characters are flawed and feel real. And the female protagonists are especially well drawn, which is one reason the recent D.C. transplant, who has spent much of her career working on Shakespearean plays, appreciates directing a female-penned production.

“My pet peeve is when you read the character descriptions in the front and the first descriptor of the female character is beautiful or pretty,” Holdridge says of work by some male playwrights. “Aren’t we past that?”

In a meta move, “Body Awareness” considers this issue. Baker examines how the source of a work changes it and draws attention to the fact that most of the plays and art we see are from a male perspective.

But Holdridge, a prolific director, is doing her part to balance things out. She was the first woman to direct a mainstage show at Arden Theatre in Philadelphia before staging the well-received “The Gaming Table” last season at Folger (one of the D.C. theaters lacking a female director this coming season). She’s also trying her hand at playwriting. Holdridge co-wrote a coming-of-age “Zorro,” which she’ll direct for Constellation Theatre in January.

As a professor, there is pressure to break through the glass ceiling to serve as a model for her female students who are aspiring directors. But that doesn’t mean she’s a proponent of quotas, so much as an advocate for open dialogue.

“In a classical play where you’re doing colorblind casting, if a director looks at a cast and all of the servants are African American, that director seriously needs to say, ‘Oh, look what I’ve done. Maybe I’ll rethink that,’ ” she says. “That’s what I feel I’d love, just for people to take a look at it and say, ‘Am I just in my comfort zone hiring a man because I’m used to hiring a man?’ ”