NYC Alt Theater Keeps Baring All

5 Guys Chillin'
PJ (Adi Chugh) goes into convulsions in "5 Guys Chillin'" while M (Cesare Scarpone) hold onto him and J (Rick Yale) clears the floor. Photo: Peter Darney

In 2009, The Amoralists premiered a new play at PS 122 that quickly became one of the most notorious theatrical events of the year. The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, written and directed by company co-founder Derek Ahonen, featured in its publicity materials a rather unusual disclaimer: “Warning: Explicit Sexual Content and Utopian Ideals.” The graphic material in question involved actor Matthew Pilieci entering the stage fully naked and fully erect, which the Times in fully prudish Gray Lady mode would describe only as a “startlingly…effective nude sequence.” Perhaps it’s unnecessary to mention that the show sold out its initial run and was extended several times.

Since then other companies have enacted shows of public nudity and icky intercourse. In just the past two-and-a-half years alone, the New Group presented the Thomas Bradshaw play Intimacy, which featured hyperreal sex acts (including ejaculation) and parents critiquing their daughter’s porn-formances. At HERE Arts Center, the opening moment of Yvan Greenberg’s dance-theater piece GENET PORNO consisted of the choreographer casually sauntering onstage completely naked and talking directly to the audience. Much of the rest of the piece comprised re-creations of online gay sex scenes with the porn stars reciting text from Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers. And in the Great Jones Repertory Company’s production of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Pylade at La MaMa, actor Marko Mandić not only spent most of the production with little or no clothing on, he also at one point inserted his engorged member into a watermelon and proceeded to enjoy an extended session of fruit-tage in full view of the audience.

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Women of Denuded
The women of Denuded, recently seen at La MaMa.

Recently, during the first week of October, I attended three performances created by artists from the US, the UK, and Croatia that all featured nudity as essential elements of their stagecraft to differing effect. Bruno Isaković’s Denuded at La MaMa, Peter Darney’s 5 Guys Chillin’ at SoHo Playhouse, and Duncan Pflaster’s The Underpants Godot at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City could not have been less alike except for their provocative inclusion of naked bodies in intimate settings.

Are these zombies awakening?

Isaković’s 50-minute piece features his entire company of dancers onstage and fully exposed for its entire duration. Beginning in dim light in La MaMa’s new downstairs theater, they stand in barely perceptible still silence for a very, very long time. Eventually the light brightens ever so slightly on two of the women at the front of the group. They begin to move their arms in a gesture that could be reaching, could be begging, might even be junkies in search of a needle. Maybe these are zombies awakening? Other arms begin to move in the same oddly distorted manner.

After a while, duets begin to emerge. In most any other context, two naked bodies moving together would be read as erotic, a stylized sex act. But Isaković’s dancers steadfastly refuse to acknowledge each other and aggressively avoid eye contact. Eventually the movement becomes faster and more playful. Moments of spontaneous laughter erupt from the performers. Dancers’ gazes do begin to connect. The older woman sitting in front of me turns to her husband and loudly remarks, “They look like they’re having fun.”

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This work is clearly not “choreographed” in the traditional sense — the performers appear to be fulfilling improvisational tasks. While this leads to unexpected moments of thrilling movement, it also evokes anxiety. There are a few instances when one dancer loses his or her balance, falling on top of another’s limbs unexpectedly, and I am made acutely aware of how easily these highly conditioned bodies can break.

Beautiful broken bodies is the subtext.

Beautiful broken bodies and minds is the subtext of Darney’s 5 Guys Chillin’, a devised theater piece based on interviews the playwright conducted with London gay men he met on the hookup app Grindr. Darney specifically was interested to hear about their experiences on what is known as the party and play (pnp) scene in which groups of men who have sex with men gather for the express purpose of engaging in chemsex. These drug-fueled orgies (primarily, though not exclusively, featuring the stimulant crystal meth, or Tina, and the date-rape drug gamma hydroxybutyrate, otherwise known as GBH or G) can last for days and are thought to be one of the factors behind the rise of HIV, Hep C, and STD infections and an increase in mental health issues within MSM communities.

5 Guys Chillin' Full Cast
The cast of 5 Guys Chillin’ display the goods before the show starts. (From left: Rick Yale, Adi Chugh, Elliot Hadley, Richard De Lisle, and Cesare Scarpone). Photo: Peter Darney.

The piece begins as the audience enters the theater from the downstairs lounge of the SoHo Playhouse. We are allowed to bring our drinks into the auditorium, so a party vibe has already been established. As I ascend the stairs to the lobby, a gorgeous South Asian man positioned on the landing makes intense eye contact with me. For a second I think maybe the price of my ticket might get me a different kind of piece after the show, but it’s quickly apparent that he’s one of the actors. In fact, almost the entire cast is arranged on the narrow stairs, requiring us to practically brush up against them as we pass.

This is the last time any of them will be fully dressed. It’s also, ironically, the only genuinely erotic moment of the entire performance. The handsome Pakistani man cruising me (PJ, played by Adi Chugh) will soon be in a jockstrap (which he changes into onstage) revealing gym-perfected pecs and ripped abs (among other things). Notably his is the most ideally chisled physique of the bunch — it’s also the only non-white one.

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We soon learn that he is living a double life, wedded to a woman from back home in an arranged marriage, father to one child with another on the way, and sneaking off on weekends to snort drugs and bugger other blokes. After one dose of G too many, we watch this gym-perfected body begin to convulse and fall to the floor. Two of the other men have just slammed (injected) Tina, and they collapse on top of PJ’s unconscious body, rocking against it in an oblivious ecstasy of intercourse. The lights in the house come up. The show is over, but the party doesn’t end.

Alyssa Simon, Mark-Eugene Garcia, and Roberto Alexander in Underpants Godot
Tara (Alyssa Simon) interrogates Beckett’s tramps (Mark-Eugene Garcia and Roberto Alexander) in Underpants Godot. Photo: Reiko Yanagi.

The Underpants Godot in contrast serves up its existential angst about the human body with a generous dose of Samuel Beckett’s morbid Irish wit. Pflaster’s play-within-a-play (which he also directed) is a sly commentary on authorship, obedience to the whims of authority, and the ways queer people have found to write ourselves into the works of the Western canon.

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Doug (Patrick Walsh) is rehearsing a Cute Boys in Their Underpants version of the Absurdist classic, unbeknownst to the notoriously litigious Beckett estate. Additionally, he has cast a real-life gay couple (Mark-Eugene Garcia and Roberto Alexander) as Vladimir and Estragon. He’s betting on their offstage chemistry igniting the onstage interactions of Beckett’s tramps-in-a-void, and the copious male nudity igniting the box office.

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Unfortunately, someone in the cast has ratted Doug out, and a representative of the estate, the tightly wound Tara (played by Alyssa Simon in one of the comic performances the year) bursts in to determine if the show can go on. The running gag here is that all of the sections she wants to review involve someone getting naked, as she and Doug battle over whether using underwear in place of a sleeve or pants violates the play’s meticulous stage directions.

Underpants Godot
A stunning moment of naked minimalist beauty in Underpants Godot. Roberto Alexander and Mark-Eugene Garcia. Photo: Reiko Yanagi.

This is all delightful fun for anyone who has ever been in a rehearsal or for those who love sticking it to the (straight white) Man. But Pflaster has one last reveal up his sleeve (or down his pants) that ends the play on a note of heartbreaking beauty. Beckett’s stage directions call for Gogo’s trousers to fall down in the last moments of the play as he and Didi debate whether or not to hang themselves.

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Except here, when Alexander’s pants drop, he’s completely naked. He famously asks, “Well, shall we go?” They both stand there staring off into space, one nude, the other just in his underwear. The equally naked tree looms behind them, and a stark full moon appears on the back wall. The lights begin to fade. It is perhaps the most stunning representation of man’s existential condition of being born naked astride a grave I have ever seen.