Constant nudity is a very different thing from a flash of naked flesh. I speak aesthetically, philosophically, politically, practically.
Unless you are a nurse or spend a lot of time in a naturist setting — full disclosure, I do not — or live in some kind of communal naked utopia (it's chilly in Chicago for that), you probably won't have considered that distinction as fully as you will consider it during the hour or so of "Untitled Feminist Show," the latest intensely resonant piece from the hugely gifted and daring Korean-American playwright-director Young Jean Lee. "Untitled Feminist Show," which is touring this weekend to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art from Lee's New York base, and comes with a far shrewder title than you might think, is a six-woman show performed without benefit, or handicap, of either words or clothes.
You start out thinking that these performers, who have disparate body types, have real guts. The show begins, house-lights still blazing, with the naked women, breathing rhythmically, progressing through the audience to the MCA's stage, which is empty but bathed in white. Once there, they connect their bodies in a dance-narrative fusion that one could perhaps best describe partly as a parody of the seven ages of womanhood, exploring everything from childbirth to lovemaking, friendship to fantasy. And it's partly a wacky celebration of joyous female possibility, a physical working out of all a woman can feel, think and do, if a woman feels and is unfettered, and if that woman is connected to other women. I'm reaching here, but think "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" only without the pants.
But it does not take long here for you to realize that it is the naked performers, as distinct from the clothed audience, that has the real power in this unusual theatrical equation. For starters, this piece is — by downtown New York arty standards — strikingly joyous, sensuous and unpretentious. It's tough to be academic and inaccessible when you are as nude as the day you were born. You leave rather in awe of these performers, but not so much for their courage but from these feelings of envy that pop up inside you as you process the truth that this is what these women get to do for a living. Nudity and utopianism long have had a cultural connection and you feel it powerfully here.
It feels like these frolicking performers — and they sure jiggle and frolic with ecstatic abandon — are inhabiting some kind of privileged sensual, self-actualizing universe to which one has been granted merely the briefest window before being forced to button-down and cover-up, once again. I kept thinking about how much high-powered women executives around town likely would get from this show. Speaking personally, the re-entry to the clothed world was far from easy, especially given the cold, stormy night in a Chicago spring that has yet to spring. Only these lucky women get to bounce around in an approximation of blazing sunlight.
The show was written and directed by Lee for her group, named Young Jean Lee's Theater Company. She works here with Malinda Ray Allen, Becca Blackwell, Desiree Burch, Erin Markey, Katy Pyle and Jennifer Rosenblit (Blackwell and Pyle are the only members of the original cast), has said she wanted to cast "stars of the downtown theater, dance and cabaret worlds," thus drawing from women with a variety of specialties in everything from modern dance to solo performance and neo-vaudeville to burlesque. Taken together (naked, naturally), they cut a compelling theatrical figure. The piece, which was devised after it was first cast last year and also includes the work of choreographers Faye Driscoll and Morgan Gould, is certainly loose and fluid — but then the expression of a female everything is pretty much its main point. At its conclusion, an entire row of thrilled young women rose as one to dance.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Stage, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Tickets: $28 (students $10) at 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.org