The politics of naked power

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Four naked bodies onstage.

Two male, two female standing facing the audience. They are bathed in amber sidelight present, exposed, powerful. They begin to move. First partnered by gender: woman with woman, man with man taking each other's weight. Placing nude body on top of nude body. Then partnered across gender: man with woman until they collapse downstage left in a pile of naked flesh that's hauntingly like a mound of corpses.

That's the opening of Antigonón, un contingente épico from Cuba's Teatro El Público that played at REDCAT this last weekend.

To say this opening was shocking doesn't really do it justice. Nudity in the theater is always a bit alarming but it's often little more than a gimmick. You know, one naked body, typically female against a sea of clothed actors? It's often a solitary gesture, an exclamation point or a brief wake up call to the audience, saying some version of "hey, look how brave we are." Paradoxically, rather than announcing how comfortable we are with our bodies in the theater, it emphasizes how puritanical and shy we've become.

Not only were these bodies, these actors, not shy -- their challenge to the audience wasn't so much to look at me but confront me. Deal with me in my purest most human state.

And remember this was just the opening of the 80 minute performance.

I won't lie to you and say I completely understood what the play was about -- not because it was performed in Spanish or wasn't clear but because it felt so deeply rooted in a Cuban culture and history that's foreign to me. I can tell you it left an impression on the audience. That it was a series of mostly monologues that spoke of sex, hardship, sacrifice and prostituting yourself for family and homeland. It challenged, celebrated, and mocked gender and homophobia. Those powerful naked bodies never seemed to be fully clothed often draped in wildly inventive costumes that never fully obscured the naked body underneath -- as if to remind us of that raw sexual power.

Antigonón is the first in a series of four pieces that REDCAT is presenting under the banner "Urgent Voices, a series confronting timely issues facing the country and the world in 2017." The series continues this week with The Wooster Group's The Town Hall Affair and then in March with Brazilian director Christiane Jatahy's The Walking Forest and in May it closes with The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn.

If this first piece is any hint, this is a series you're not going to want to miss.

It's a precious, precarious moment in the arts. It could not have been lost on the opening night audience of Antigonón that that very same day a budget had been proposed in our country that would defund the National Endowment for the Arts and countless other programs. Like the paradox of the nude body, here was a work from Cuba that simultaneously reminded us why the theater is so essential and also, when done well, so politically feared.

Antigonón played last weekend at REDCAT downtown.

For info on the rest of Urgent Voices series and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out:

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.