BARE presented by Refuge Theatre Project, Review – Teenage Angst Underscored in a Church

 

I was blown away by Refuge Theatre Project’s emotionally-charged and gorgeously sung presentation of bare. I have seen bare a handful of times before, but never with such emotional energy, desperation, or stunning vocals as I witnessed on Friday night at the Epworth United Methodist Church in Edgewater.

 

True to its title, this is the “barest” of productions. Staged entirely inside an actual church this production revealed many startling shades to bare that I’ve never seen or thought of previously. It’s like this show finally found the voice it was missing. Similarly, this young theatre company also seems to have found its own unique voice too - one that makes it stand finally out above many other companies in the city: producing musicals that give “refuge” to young people who are lost and confused.

 

L-R: Alanna Lovely (Tanya), Anastasia Arnold (Diane), Cassie Nelson (Rory), Natalie Savoy (Kyra), Jonathan Parker Jackson (Alan), Lewis Rawlinson (Peter), Connor Giles (Zach), Gina Francesca (Nadia), Molly Coleman (Ivy), Jacob Fjare (Lucas), and Ryan Armstrong (Matt)

 

Bare, or bare: a pop opera as its full title is called (the lower case spelling is on purpose), is like a mixture of the musicals Rent and Spring Awakening mixed in with the movie Dead Poets Society. It explores a range of complex teenage issues like sexuality, guilt, self-expression, pregnancy, fat shaming, abandonment and a whole lot of angst that comes with the territory of being seventeen and growing up under strict religious guidelines from adult authority figures.

 

The show follows five seniors at a Catholic boarding school, all struggling with various issues. Jason (Christopher Ratliff) is the school’s handsome jock that the girls lust after. He’s in a secret relationship with Peter (Lewis Rawlinson), a shy outcast with an artistic streak. Both boys are forced to hide their romance out of fear of being shunned by their family and their church. Jason’s twin sister Nadia (Gina Francesca) is also an outcast, but in an aggressive cynical way. She’s tough on the outside, but struggles with immense self-loathing over her weight.

 

Ivy (Molly Coleman) is the popular girl, but is dealing with a negative social status as the school's “slut,” while Matt (Ryan Armstrong) is struggling with his unrequited love for Ivy and the jealousy over her affection for Jason. All of these struggles, compounded with the strict teachings of the church, lead to catastrophic consequences in the Second Act.

 

L-R: Chris Ratliff (Jason), Molly Coleman (Ivy), and Ryan Armstrong (Matt)

 

The last time I saw bare was the 2012 Off-Broadway update re-titled as bare: the musical. That version was so completely re-written (they cut 23 of the original show’s 36 songs) that it might as well have been an entirely different show altogether. Both versions have flaws, but the newer one is much worse.

 

The original, written in 1999 (but not staged until 2000), is the version that Refuge Theatre is presenting. The new updated version has never been licensed for regional productions. Still, the original has some enormous structural glitches of its own that can be hard to overlook. Jon Hartmere’s lyrics are cringe-inducing in places (especially in the song “Plain Jane Fat Ass”). The female characters overall are frustratingly underwritten, and, given the overall cultural shift on gay rights in the last 16 years, it feels a bit dated – and not just on gay issues per se, the teens go to a rave at one point, so it’s dated overall.

 

L-R: Chris Ratliff (Jason), Molly Coleman (Ivy), Alanna Lovely (Tanya), Jacob Fjare (Lucas), Lewis Rawlinson (Peter), Gina Francesca (Nadia), and Ryan Armstrong (Matt)

 

Indeed most of these pitfalls were fixed in the 2012 update, however the new version also felt overly sanitized to the point where it bordered camp. By far the biggest problem I had with it was how they awkwardly tried to modernize the story to the present by utilizing social media and online bullying for the big source of tragedy at the end of the show. It didn’t work. In fact, it actually turned a serious drama pop opera into a corny teenage musical comedy.

 

After seeing Refuge’s production I came around to actually admiring the original because of its flaws. In a way they give it a raw edginess that feels authentic to the confusing sense of angst these teens are facing.

 

Upper: Shaun Baer (Priest), Lower: Lewis Rawlinson (Peter)

 

No matter the version, I’ve never had difficulties making an emotional connection. Much of this for me is personal though. Growing up in a semi-Catholic family I grappled with many similar issues as a teenager that these characters face, mainly a sense of confusion and guilt. It’s a feeling that I suspect many young people raised Catholic can easily relate to.

 

This is all especially true in director Matt Dominguez’s exceptional production where the church doubles as the set and the scenes are staged entirely on and around the confines of the altar. The audience sits in the center section of pews. Programs are glued to church hymnal booklets. The side pews work as the dormitories. It all works magnificently to deepen the textual themes. The sanctuary of the church itself puts a heavier emphasis on the constant religious struggles and the young characters inability to escape their sense of guilt.

 

Performing in a church also makes the show feel much edgier than it normally would be in an actual theatre. The lovemaking scenes were tastefully done (well, compared to former productions), yet setting it on an actual altar, just below a giant cross, made the sex feel risky, dangerous, and even a tad blasphemous. The church also raises the stakes to a degree I’ve never felt before. Previously I found some of the teenage struggles to be whiny, and the love triangle to be clichéd, here though they felt desperate, real, and immensely compelling.

 

L-R: Chris Ratliff (Jason) and Molly Coleman (Ivy)

 

Of course this is also due to the incredibly talented 15-member cast, made up of almost entirely in-college or recent graduates. They’re young enough to easily pass for high school seniors.

 

This is not only the best sung bare I’ve seen, it’s also the best acted one too. Lewis Rawlinson is extraordinary as Peter. The actor gives a truly moving performance that’s worth the price of admission alone. And this was the first time I not only liked Ivy, but found her incredibly interesting. This is mostly because Molly Coleman is so honest, particularly in “Portrait of a Girl”. Both Christopher Ratliff as Jason and Gina Francesca as Nadia were perfectly layered and immensely effective. Ryan Armstrong was outstanding as Matt, as was A. Nikki Greenlee who resists the temptation of falling into a diva stereotype as Sister Chantelle.

 

L-R: Lewis Rawlinson (Peter) and Chris Ratliff (Jason)

 

Everyone in this cast feels strongly connected to each other. There’s actual tension between them, and even chemistry. The fights felt motivated (the few moments of physical confrontations were some of the best fight choreography I’ve seen in any play this year) and the duets were spectacular, particularly “Are You There?”

 

But it was the soft moments of painful vulnerability in the solos that really took this production to a whole other level entirely. Raising the stakes to higher portions and giving the show an emotional punch I had never felt before. I even teared up a bit during “A Quiet Night at Home” and “Role of a Lifetime”.

 

L-R: Lewis Rawlinson (Peter) and Chris Ratliff (Jason)

 

While there is much to commend about this production it’s not perfect. Some of the transitions between songs feel too jarring without actual scene changes. Shelby Westart’s choreography was a bit cheesy (at one point the ensemble literally spins in a circle on the lyrics “spending circles in our souls”).

 

And although the cavernous church space deepens the textual elements it also creates problems with sound and staging. Certain lyrics are getting lost through an echo in the rafters. The rap number “Wonderland” was totally inaudible because of this. And a couple moments had actors totally out of spotlight singing in the dark. Most frustrating was that a few songs had action taking place on both left and right pews making it hard to know where our focus should be.

 

L-R: Ryan Armstrong (Matt), Shaun Baer (Priest), and Lewis Rawlinson (Peter)

 

Still, these problems are minor in comparison to how much this show gets right. This is truly a fantastic presentation of bare and a true staple of Chicago experimental theatre at its very best. Go see it while you can.

 

Bottom Line: bare: a pop opera is Highly Recommended.

 

BARE: A POP OPERA presented by Refuge Theatre Project

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, there is a 10 minute intermission

LocationEpworth United Methodist Church at 5253 N. Kenmore (located less than 3 blocks from the Berwyn Red Line station)

Runs through: November 6, 2016

Curtain Times: Fridays and Saturdays - 7:30 PM. Sundays - 6:00 PM. Mondays (Oct. 17 and 31 only) – 7:30 PM

Tickets: $20 and can be purchased online

 

Book by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo, Music by Damon Intrabartolo, Lyrics by Jon Hartmere, Directed by Matt Dominguez, Music Directed by Mike Evans, Choreographed by Shelby Westart, Assistant Directed by Hunter Lindner, Stage Managed by Carleigh Obrochta

Cast: Lewis Rawlinson (Peter), Chris Ratliff (Jason), Molly Coleman (Ivy), Gina Francesca Carlson (Nadia), Ryan Armstrong (Matt), A. Nikki Greenlee (Sister Chantelle), Shaun Baer (Priest), Anne Marie Lewis (Claire), Jacob Fjare (Lucas), Alanna Lovely (Tanya), Natalie Savoy (Kyra), Anastasia Arnold (Diane), Cassie Nelson (Rory), Connor Giles (Zach), Jonathan Parker Jackson (Alan), Jennifer Ledesma (swing), Kaleb Van Rijswijck (swing)

Photo CreditsLaura Leigh Smith

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