It's been a hard year. Social nudity is not possible now, and will not be for the foreseeable future. Nude parties, gatherings, swims, and bowling nights have all been cancelled. Attending movies and plays is right out as well. The pandemic put on hold a very successful revival of a nudist play - Disrobed: Why So Clothes Minded?, originally produced for the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
But adversity can inspire us to try new, better things. Many people have used the pandemic lockdowns to try home nudism for the first time, and nudist organizations (particularly BN, which has organized many online events) have reported a surge in new memberships. Nudism is certainly on the rise.
And the nudist play Disrobed has arisen again as well.
The story of this work stretches back to 1931 when playwright Tom Cushing published Barely Proper, subtitled "An Unplayable Play". In this work, a young man meets his German fiancée’s family, who are naturists, and who have been led to believe that he is a naturist as well. It was an experiment in theatre; no one would produce a play, surely, with every single cast member fully nude on stage.
Indeed, Barely Proper was not produced until a 1970 Broadway run - which found only witheringly negative reviews. It would lie dormant again for decades more, although nudist clubs would occasionally produce the play (including my local club Bare Oaks, which produced it in 2011.
The play finally hit the mainstream in 2019, when an adaptation written by Steven Vlasak and directed by Brian Knudson, Disrobed: Why So Clothes-Minded?, was performed at the Hollywood Fringe. The play received positive reviews and the Fringe festival’s Producers Encore Award, and established a monthly run for the rest of the year.
And then, 2020. With stages all over the world shuttered, it would be difficult for this play to see the curtain again.
Enter director Troy Peterson. Working with Vlasak, Peterson gave the play a very 2020 twist, changing it from a stage play to an online production. And the results are a remarkable success.
In this adaptation, Skye’s family is distributed about the globe - Skye in Iceland on a research project, brother Axel in southern California, sister Kat in New York, and parents George and Sierra in northern California. Unable to be together at Christmas, the family gathers together on Zoom, eager to meet Skye’s new boyfriend Eric, who is at home in Boston.
However, Skye has not found the nerve to tell her uptight boyfriend that her family are naturists, and they all participate in these group calls naked. Skye has also led her family to believe that Eric is also a naturist, forcing Eric to play along with a lie that is far, far outside his comfort zone.
In essence, it is a fish out of water comedy. Conventions are turned on their head, and the main character needs to work out whether they are insane, or he is; Eric and Skye are forced to choose whether their love can survive the confrontation of their very different ethics.
Each character brings a completely different energy to the production - these are not paper-thin nudist stereotypes. Eric (Peterson) is nervous and shrill as he works through the terror of being nude with this family. Skye (Eloise Gordon) has a difficult role, protecting both her family's naturist tendencies and her fiancé's extreme reaction. Axel (Ian Hayes) and Kat (Shayley Gunther) are utterly convincing as young, artistic-minded, completely comfortable naturists. And Sierra (Karen Lasater) and George (Dave McClain) are great as picture-perfect parents-of-the-girlfriend types, complete with dad jokes and hopes for grandchildren - except that they're nude. The comfort and chemistry that the cast have built comes through beautifully, even though they are in separate parts of the country, communicating only on-screen.
Successfully transplanting a stage play to Zoom seems like a daunting task, but Peterson delivers the play extremely effectively in the new medium. Instead of walking on and off stage, characters enter and leave the call. The framing of each character - sometimes to obscure nudity, and other times to present it in screen-filling detail - is used to great comedic effect. The entire narrative plays out convincingly and entertainingly throughout the play’s fifty-minute run time.
The work shows a deep understanding of the nudist perspective as well. Skye’s family is not only unconcerned about whether they are visibly nude on camera; they revel in it, knowing that they are among others who accept and appreciate being naked together.
And yes, there are nudity puns and some silly sight gags as well. The characters try to hang a lantern on some of these, but they provoke rolling eyes rather than sincere laughs.
At other times, characters - particularly Skye’s father - also fall into some tropes that always seem to choke up nudist narratives. Absurdly academic speeches don’t feel like authentic characters responding to the others around them. (Vestiges of the original play's context come out when he refers to naturism as "the movement".) Naturists don’t typically talk that way in real life.
But this is theatre, not real life, and these speeches could all be a calculated way to reach non-nudist audience members, to explain naturist ideas to them. For a naturist audience, though, this sometimes weakens the spell of the narrative.
These minor quibbles take nothing away from the marvellous effectiveness of the play, or the many very funny moments that resonate long after the virtual curtain falls. Disrobed is remarkably successful where it digs into real truths about personal integrity and expression, and modern attitudes towards nudity (which haven’t changed all that much since 1931).
The production clearly shows the influence of real naturist thinking. Some vignettes, like one’s first time undressing with a group of nudists, or the often contradictory thoughts and emotions we cling to about nude bodies, ring so true that they must surely come from some real nudist experience.
There is a distinct lack of naturist-inspired and naturist-friendly media in the world; for so many reasons, non-sexualized nudity remains a nearly impossible line to cross in our society. Disrobed should be celebrated by naturists everywhere, and supported as a positive naturist work that elevates all of our voices.
Disrobed: the Virtual Event will stream for three shows only, on January 15, 16, and 17. The performance will stream live, and disappears immediately thereafter. For information, and to purchase tickets, see https://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/6996.