Erin Roche is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Vocal Performance, a strong theater background, and an even stronger desire to showcase the best that Chicago talent has to offer.
(l-r) Alanna Lovely, Anastasia Arnold, Cassie Nelson, Natalie Savoy, Jonathan Parker Jackson, Lewis Rawlinson , Connor David Giles, Gina Francesca, Molly Coleman, Jacob Fjare and Ryan Armstrong. Photo credit: Refuge Theatre Project
Review: BARE: A POP OPERA at Refuge Theatre Project
By Erin Roche
Boy, girl, boy girl. Plaid skirt, khaki pants, plaid skirt, khaki pants. This is the strict pattern in which we sat during Mass at my Catholic elementary school. I think the purpose of that was to stop us from giggling with our girlfriends during the homily, but now it seems like a larger metaphor. Seeing that world come rushing back to me through BARE: A POP OPERA, set inside the Epworth United Methodist Church, brought back visceral memories and immersed us all, possibly deeper than some of us meant to go.
As we usher into the pews and open our hymnals (Refuge Theatre Projects programs), the lights go up on the altar and reveal a class at St. Cecilia’s boarding school, preparing to audition for Romeo and Juliet. Two gay high school students wrestle with what their undeniable love means for them and their faith, bearing a lonesome and troubled path to sexual exploration, identity, and acceptance. Double entendre and metaphor play a huge role in this production- from the meta-performance of a Shakespearean play about forbidden lovers down to the name of the musical- bare. Bare your soul, bear your cross, bear false witness. The commitment that Refuge makes to taking this already layered script and to elevating the metaphor in reality through their staging and site-specificity is impressive, to say the least. While a church is a safe place of solace for some, it can be a place of fear and rejection for others– a juxtaposition that does not go unnoticed with this choice in venue and the use of Catholic rhetoric throughout the script.
Christopher Ratliff and Lewis Rawlinson as Jason and Peter, respectively, stun as the show’s protagonists, their chemistry electric and their voices in blended perfection. Rawlinson as Peter is earnest and heartfelt, and Ratliff as Jason at the same time both vulnerable and powerful. Gina Carlson as Jason’s piercingly witty sister Nadia never wastes a single opportunity to find nuance in her character and provides perfectly-timed comedic relief. Matt, a rival to Jason, is played by a soulful Ryan Armstrong who shows beautiful character work in his supporting role. Molly Coleman shines as Ivy, a role that seems one-note at first but develops to be much more complex than her innocent and girlish voice presupposes. Overall, there’s not a single person in this show that doesn’t exude just how much this play means to them. Theater is an exercise in empathy, a hope that we can affect our audience by bringing a story to life. Jason’s heartbreak is my heartbreak. Peter’s rejection by his mother is so painful to watch, as I see and feel the struggles of my own friends and family in his attempts to be his true self. Combining faith and homosexual love in this way with BARE shows anyone who is still questioning whether or not those two things exist in harmony that, “their love was pure and nothing else brought [them] closer to God.”
One thing particularly interesting about BARE is they never say the word “gay.” In the moment where Peter tries to come out to his mother, he almost says it, but this purposeful exclusion shows just how important words are. Words matter and they matter even in their absence. Words mattered when Peter was consoled by the nun at St. Cecilia’s, Sister Chantelle, and they mattered when Jason was shut out and refused empathy by his priest. As Peter said, “He went to you for guidance, and you hid behind a screen.”
But beyond watching the crushing performances of Ratliff and Rawlinson wrestling with the hardships of questioning sexual identity combined with the torment of first love, the most chilling moments in this show for me came from looking around at the audience. In a theater that is a church, a communal space where you can see your fellow patrons, you look around and see the characters’ pain mirrored in the audience. A man holding his partner, squeezing his hand in empathy, a parent nodding their head. Ultimately, this story is about love and acceptance above all things, and just like Sister Chantelle says to Peter, “God don’t make no trash!” And similarly to the Catholic hymn that decrees, “One bread, One body, One Lord of all,” the choir exalts at the end that we all have, “One voice, One truth, and One life.” It’s ours to fill with love.
Performance of bare: a pop opera are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 6 pm, Monday, Oct 31 at 7:30 pm. Regular Run October 9- November 6, all seats $20
Tickets available online at www.refugetheatre.com