[Additional reporting by Sam O’Keefe]
“Here in a world, where there’s safety in falsehood, I have discovered the one thing that’s real,” sings one of the main characters at the climax of the musical “bare: A Pop Opera.” In additional to being a major plot point of the show, the wavering line between reality and fantasy is present in the theatrical experience as a whole, prompting audiences and performers alike to reflect on the contradictory artifices of everyday life and the barefaced honesty of a fictional world.
This dichotomy permeated the directorial debut of Bianca Barragan ’19 in “bare: A Pop Opera,” an altogether multivalent musical unique in its format in that, like an opera, it was mostly sung. Rehearsals for the show began in September, and the semester’s worth of work culminated in performances in the Shiva Theatre from Thursday, Dec. 1, to Saturday, Dec. 3.
“The show,” explained Barragan in an email, “is centered around the lives of two boys, Jason and Peter [played by Aidan Anderson ’20 and John Kee ’19, respectively], at a Catholic boarding school who have been trying to navigate their relationship with each other for the past six years. The audience comes into their relationship during the second half of their senior year of high school.”
Themes of identity, self-acceptance, shame and religion run through the show and constitute significant hurdles for many of the characters, including Jason’s sister Nadia, played by Chloe Catoya ’20. Barragan went on, identifying Jason and Peter’s major struggle: “However there is an issue—Peter wants to tell people about [his relationship with Jason] while Jason would rather keep it a secret. We also get to see other characters navigate their own issues through the context of a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ they are putting on. I don’t want to spoil the ending but let’s just say that tensions continue to flare as problems are not addressed and are dealt with in unhealthy ways.”
This production of “Romeo and Juliet,” the play-within-a-play, is just one of the show’s many riffs on Shakespearean devices, such as dream sequences, masked identities and a complex web of relationships. As in the Elizabethan tragedy, drama runs high in “bare,” but levity is introduced through comical asides and an impressive score, full of surprises and fun nods and winks to other works. Think of the melodrama of the first season of “Glee” combined with the punk rock attitude of “School of Rock,” all set to a backdrop of music ranging from ballads and rap to English folk dance and a selection from Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto.
The superb live band accompanying the performances was indispensable to this musical journey, but their preparations for such a large stylistic scope were difficult at times. As rehearsal accompanist and keyboardist Colby Morrison ’20 stated, “I think one of the biggest challenges is the sheer amount of music in this show. ‘Bare’ is a pop opera, in the sense that it’s all music; there’s only one scene in the show with no music under it. For a fairly short rehearsal process with varied schedules, it was a challenge for everyone to learn and master the music, including myself. I spent lots of hours in Skinner, working through all the tougher passages of the show.”
Actress Mary Retta ’20, who played Ivy, the character cast in the role of Juliet and subsequently plunged into a love triangle, expanded on the difficulty of this show: “This show was challenging both musically and thematically. Not only was there a huge amount of complicated music to learn but the show itself revolved around some tough themes such as homophobia, bullying and questioning one’s religion and path in life. We worked really hard to portray the correct emotion in every scene so that the audience understood what each of the characters was going through…[thereby] taking these issues and making them real and relatable to the audience.”
Exploring these issues of identity and acceptance in crisis is as important as ever now, and the show masterfully portrays how people confronted with such struggles either cope or succumb to the pressure. “The main message of the show for me,” expressed Barragan, “is represented in one of the lines of the final number, ‘It’s so hard to find your way when you have no voice to guide you home.’”
“For so many people in this world,” Barragan continued, “the story of ‘bare’ is a reality for them. They have to return home and navigate communities that do not offer them a voice of comfort because of profound discrimination … I know for me, especially as someone who is bisexual, when I look at ‘bare’ I see myself and my community represented and that brings me great comfort.”
The musical’s parallel plot with “Romeo and Juliet” tackles this notion of uprootedness in an interesting way, at the same time challenging the traditional love story and universalizing the ideas of forbidden love and social denial and exclusion.
Theatre, both the fictionalized version of Shakespeare’s play in the musical and “bare: A Pop Opera” itself, thus becomes a fictional arena in which to play out very real—though often hidden—tensions, sometimes just overly dramatized versions of real life. As Barragan commented, “One of the biggest challenges was being able to be flexible and give up this ‘perfect’ image of what I wanted [the show to be] in my mind for something that was more rooted in reality.”
The self-referential aspect of this theatre production, moreover, complicates the genre itself, posing the problem of how to extricate one’s “true” self from a created or adopted persona. Where do your defense mechanisms end and you begin? “All the world’s a stage,” the Bard wrote after all. “bare” certainly demonstrated the frequent difficulties that come along with being an actor, both in the technical, artistic sense of the word as well as the psychological and metaphorical.
Reflecting on her involvement and the meaning of the production, Retta affirmed, “This show is incredibly important … I hope that the audience walked away with an understanding of what it is like to be different and how hard it can often be to be oneself.”