On one hand, The Anam Cara Theatre Company‘s third installment of Naked Girls Reading was exactly what one would expect: naked women reading from an unadorned stage. But within the first five minutes it was clear that the production’s entertainment value had little to do with nudity beyond the novelty of witnessing three performers casually disrobe and take their seats.
The concept began in three years ago in Chicago, and performances have been hosted by local companies across the country. This marked the series’ third run this year.
Much of the content — which consisted of excerpts from biographies, magazine articles and autobiographies of influential musicians — focused, not surprisingly, on sexuality and its role in popular culture, but the material also included deeply personal and sometimes tragic accounts that humanized the pop culture icons.
The show opened, appropriately, with an autobiographical account of Lady Gaga’s first experience stripping onstage and was followed by a Chuck Klosterman article dissecting the role of sex in Britney Spears’ success. The irony of nude women examining this subject matter made for an entertaining start, and acknowledging the elephant in the room early eased the slight awkwardness of staring at naked strangers. But soon the performers’ own humor, charisma and talent took center stage, and by the end of the performance it seemed perfectly ordinary to be watching naked women reading.
Early on, costumes and songs made it clear that this was a theatrical experience beyond a “reading.” Dolly Parton’s witty and insightful autobiography drew especially hearty laughter as Amanda DePaola donned a ridiculous blond wig to capture the singer’s true essence. And a selection about Frank Sinatra included Kimberly Hartman and Jenny Holmes sporting fedoras and ties to capture the persona of Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Sinatra reading also saw the evenings musical highlight, a rendition of “It Had to be You” performed by Hartman, whose singing was nothing to be scoffed at.
The crowd was diverse, a collection of men and women, young and old, who laughed and listened attentively as the performers shared hilarious and heartbreaking passages from the lives of artists like Bessie Smith, Michael Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Patti Smith, Rosanne Cash and Elvis. For die-hard music fans, the material was obscure and captivating, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who saved the program to further explore some of the selected books.
All and all, the night was playful, fun and laid back from start to finish, and the performers were relaxed, charismatic and engaging throughout. Of course nudity was always a part of the performance, and it was always supposed to be. But by the end of the night, it was an afterthought and something that seemed completely reasonable, proof that the performance’s mission had been fulfilled.
From the program: “When naked or nearly-naked female bodies are displayed publicly, this typically occurs in a hypersexualized and objectifying manner. Furthermore, only certain, idealized versions of the female body are made visible … By contrast, Naked Girls Reading – Ashevile has created a space in which real women are empowered to be naked publicly in a creative and autonomous manner. ”