October 31, 2012

Stripping Risley Bare

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With a cast composed of students from Cornell, Ithaca College and members of the Ithaca community and featuring almost two-and-a-half hours of rock-and-roll, bare: A Pop Opera is a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Produced by the Melodramatics Theatre Company, bare adds a modern twist to Shakespeare’s classic with its two leads: two closeted gay teens, Jason and Peter, attending Catholic school. However, director Spencer Whale ’14, in an interview with The Sun, expressed his desire to have the audience think of the production as not only a “political piece,” but also a trigger for greater conversations concerning unity, acceptance and change.

Whale, who initially had doubts about directing the play due to its subject matter, found the music absolutely beautiful and the text well-written as he contemplated it over the summer. He accepted the position of director with Melodramatics, convinced that the play’s theme would resonate well with Cornell students and the Ithaca community alike. Nevertheless, Whale warns the audience against seeing the play as solely dealing with the role of the church on sexual identities. He highlighted the struggles faced by each character, including the high school students’ “isolation and loneliness on the cusp of adulthood,” as well as the adults’ difficulty in reconciling their Catholicism with their personal morals. Even though Jason and Peter’s religion is a large source of their identity crisis, “religion is not a bad thing,” said Whale.

Given that Shakespearean theatre is Whale’s forte, it is not surprising to find elements from Romeo and Juliet weaving in and out of bare. It is interesting that the former works on two levels in the latter: On one hand, the theme of forbidden love mimics that of Romeo and Juliet; on the other, at the play’s conclusion, the characters prepare for their own Shakespearean production. Well-known verses and events from Romeo and Juliet, including the prologue and epilogue, are incorporated into bare in the form of electrifying songs, making Shakespeare less daunting for the audience. Rock dance routines represent Catholic rituals, tying the Shakespearean original and the adaptation together. Though there were many sources of inspiration for directing the production, given the ubiquity of Shakespearean plays, Whale noted the importance of “taking nothing for granted” as he tried to put the play and the songs in his own context to tell a more compelling story.

Considering the massive scale of the production, the team faced numerous structural difficulties in bringing bare to the stage. The cast and crew had to adapt to the rapidity of costume changes. Extra steps were taken to ensure that the cast would depict a huge high school rave on stage without compromising its quality. Additionally, Whale praised the cast’s diligence and talent in tackling a very challenging score, despite their lack of experience.

Dan Middleditch, who plays Jason, said that he found it easy to connect with his role, as he also went to a Catholic school himself and felt that he did not belong. Still, to better understand Jason’s character, Middleditch spoke to friends who have been in Jason’s position. He cited that as an example of how the cast went the extra step in order to render their roles more authentic.

Though it looks like a brave play about teens dealing with homosexuality and religion on the surface, bare promises to deliver much more. With an amazing cast, a full orchestra and a score that is sure to captivate the audience, it is one of Risley Theatre’s biggest productions yet. Comedic elements are interspersed throughout the play, which also deals with much more profound issues, such as identity, doubt and suicide. It will raise questions for those looking for high-school drama and philosophizing about life alike. When the characters’ meager problems become “very real,” as Whale put it, we are bound to fall in love with the characters and think about “enacting changes on our own.”

bare premieres tonight at Risley Theater and will run until Nov. 10.

Original Author: Charley Du

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