What is “the Male Gaze” and can we remain neutral when it comes to the body? According to dramaturg Alicia Commbes, the male gaze is a concept popularized in British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s 1973 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. The term “describes the tendency of visual media to assume that the viewer is a male, and presents a female in the work as implicitly pleasurable or sexual for that male viewer to look upon.”
Believe it or not, in Body Awareness, Annie Baker’s first professional Bay Area production, the theme makes for an intriguing, comically serious evening of theater.
“You’re not retarded. You’re living with two women.”
Phyllis (Amy Resnick) hosts a guest artist (Howard Swain), a photographer famous for taking photos of nude women, during body awareness week at a small Vermont college. Their home is anything but conventional. Partner Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen), a school teacher (but not an “academic”) is struggling with her physical self. Her son Jared (Patrick Russell), carries an electric toothbrush to sooth his nerves, may or may not suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, and is a Rain Man-esque genius. To make matters worse, his relationship with pay-per-view is wracking up huge monthly charges.
Over the course of a week, the family not only struggles with its unique composition, but also with the relationships between each of its members; to uncover the essence of modern day relationships is to journey a bumpy road.
Frank dialog reigns supreme. We eavesdrop on some eye-opening stuff; masturbation, vaginas, penises (“beautiful”) and oral performances extraordinaire are anything but off-limits. Testament to the acting chops of both Howard Swain (who is exceptional, as he was as the old man in SJ Rep’s uproarious A Christmas Story a few years back) and Patrick Russell who make us cringe, squirm as we watch an explicit father-son conversation. The dialog surprises, yet feels truthful.
At the heart of the play is the relationship between the two women. One, a lesbian “since kindergarten,” the other three years out of a straight marriage. Phyllis doesn’t believe the nude photos are art, and refers to them as grotesque, pornographic (“women with no body hair is gross!”). But for Joyce, they could be an escape to reality.
Life in the 21st century
In a world bombarded with imagery, and rapid-fire communications – proliferated by social networks such as Twitter, Facebook – the superficial is stronger than ever. It’s a relief that Aurora Theatre gives a thoughtful play like Body Awareness (which anchors their Global Age Project) an opportunity to reach those of us who don’t give much though to the self-conscious. When it comes to the body, I’m a bit like Frank, the photographer (sans the nude model part). When I get out of the shower I take a quick look in the mirror, “hmmm” or maybe “hummmph.” Then I go on my merry way.
Bay Area theater is off to a phenomenal start this year. We’re seeing uniformly impressive works hit the stage. Jesus in India (Magic Theatre), Becky Shaw (SF Playhoue), Double Indemnity (SJ Rep) and The Pitmen Painters (TheatreWorks) are just a few of the standouts that come to mind. And now we can add Body Awareness to that list.
3.5 out of 5 stars (Sweet Stuff)
Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley
Directed by Joy Carlin
Starring Amy Resnick, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Patrick Russell, Howard Swain
By Annie Baker