A group of high school seniors face the turmoil of their teenage years, but with a twist: two of the main characters are gay... and they attend a Catholic boarding school.
That's the general premise of Bare, a play written by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere. It's the sort of story that could be dealt with lazily, or in a ham-handed fashion; Intrabartolo and Hartmere mostly avoid those pitfalls by making sure they're showing us teenagers, rather than adults who happen to be too young to buy beer, and by shoring up the straightforward, even predictable, plot with plenty of humor and tuneful melodies.
That's right, this play about teen sexuality, religious angst, unrelenting social and family pressure, and suicide is a musical: a rollicking musical, at that, and while the singing in the F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company production isn't always stellar, the performance is spirited and energetic, the cast charming, and the musicians first-rate.
Peter (Trevor Croft) is your typical closeted altar boy. He serves at Sunday mass with daydreams of being found out raging through his head. In his fantasies, when his schoolmates find out about him being gay, they circle him with pointing fingers, Biblical quotes, and cries of, "Abomination!" The only thing they don't do is stone him, and they'd probably get around to it soon enough if Peter's daydream (or, better put, waking nightmare) didn't skip focus, the way imagination does, to his mother, Claire (Ursina Amsler), who says, "Claire, you wanted grandchildren; instead, you'll get ambiguous postcards from South Beach."
Peter is certain that his mother knows all about his secret, and it torments him that he still hasn't found the courage to come out to her. It also frustrates him that his lifelong best friend--and his lover--won't even consider bringing their relationship out into the open: Jason (Samuel Moscoso) is the Big Man on Campus, pursued by flocks of eager girls and admired by all the boys. Why would he give up his status as the school's most popular guy when he can have it both ways, basking everyone's adoration in public and reveling in his physical and emotional connection with Peter in private?
The play doesn't have much use for subtlety; the writers use the time-honored device of the play-within-a-play to hammer their point home. The kids mount a production of Romeo and Juliet (!), incorporating Shakespeare's dialogue into their sung exchanges, and the reason this works is that the writers are careful to put in the elements you'd most want to see in a setup like this: Jason plays Romeo, beating out Matt (Andrew Mackin) for the part; Nadia (Keri-Ann Maguire), reputed to be the school slut, wins the role of Juliet, and it's a double slap in the face to Matt, who openly pines for Nadia, that she pursues Jason in real life and not just while treading the boards.
Peter plays Mercutio ("best friends playing best friends," Claire quips, when Peter tells her about the play), but when Nadia misses rehearsal one day and Peter steps in with her lines already memorized, the plain fact that Jason and Peter love one another is there for everyone to see--if only they were able to recognize it.
Sister Chantelle (Lara Simpson, whose performance is a hoot) does recognize it ("I think I've been around enough priests to understand you loud, proud, and clear," she tells Peter), but everyone else is so lost in a haze of hormones that only Matt, jealously keeping tabs on Nadia and Jason, puzzles it all out. Matt does his best to be discreet, but as his rage builds, it's only a matter of time before he explodes.
Intrabartolo's music and Hartmere's lyrics mesh well and carry the story over the occasional rough or extravagant spot; the book, on which Intrabartolo and Hartmere collaborated, doesn't shy from depicting erotic situations or delving into what kids do for fun (drugs, raves), and director Joe DeMita works with the material, staging one sexual encounter that is both steamy and halting, equal parts animal passion and emotional caution.
That same willingness to lay it all out there comes into play when the writers take on the Catholic Church, which is personified by a priest (Brian Dunham) who cannot quite contain his utter rejection of homosexuality. (The question of whether the priest is gay himself is not addressed, though Dunham's performance suggests that internalized homophobia may be at work.)
If that doesn't outrage the professionally insulted among the Catholic crowd, the play's take on confession surely will ("Confession: it's the poor man's therapy session," sing the cast, adding, "We have no need of forgiveness, because our shit is none of His business"), and so will a scene in which Peter and Matt soothe their respective love pangs with a bottle of sacramental wine. (Then there's the religious vision that Peter has, featuring the Virgin Mary as a Gospel singer complete with backup act... hoo-boy! It's a show-stopper!)
There's plenty of passion in this play, and ironically it's none too different from the suffering of Jesus upon which the religious love to mediate. For the devout, the bloodier the travails of Christ, the better; for Intrabartolo and Hartmere, the challenge is to pack the play with as much anger and insecurity as they can manage, with girls' body image and boys' anxieties over whether they are masculine enough (not to mention a generalized sense of parental love and support being only provisional, at best) taking place of pride right up there with the familiar plaints of the closeted kids.
You can see why the writers titled this play Bare: they don't feel a need to apologize for telling us the truth as they see it, and that a quality of emotional honesty carries into the music, which is frankly pop in nature. You know it's corny and obvious and a bit saccharine, but damned if it still doesn't bring a tear to your eye.
Bare runs through August 2 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA.
Performance Schedule: Extended through August 8, 2008.
Tickets available at www.fudgetheatre.com/boxoffice