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Controversial, Fascinating “Nude/Naked” Examines Art vs Societal Norms

With its provocative title, “Nude/Naked,” Lightning Rod Theater’s premiere production at the McCadden Place Theatre in Hollywood, may at first seem to be something prurient. What fascinates more than anything else is how much it is not, at least not if you’re really listening. Playwright Paul Hogan Zeidler’s examination of the once subculture world of the artist in an era of nonstop media and social commentary strikes both at cultural norms and at the particular ethos which centers the truly artistic mind. At both, this world premiere play manages to be engrossing from start to finish.

Bennett Duquesne has had an admittedly controversial career, as the once journalistic photographer shifted into art photos featuring his daughter from early puberty on in pictures made arguably more timeless by her nudity and more art because of his use of light and symbolism. His work has graced the halls of major galleries and the pages of coffee table books, and his model, now in her 20s, has become an increasingly integral part of his artistic process even when not in front of the camera.

Now, a series of events while he was away has led to the death of a rather mediocre student of his, shot in his own living room. As he and his daughter try to keep their world private, both the spread of online media and the consolidation of traditional informational outlets leave them under a judgmental and unsophisticated microscope. There they find themselves invaded, analyzed, and critiqued by people who don’t know them, or their sense of what makes their work artful.

Bjorn Johnson plays Duquesne as a man grasping to hold onto the safe space he has created for himself in great measure by constant and almost myopic focus on the art he creates. It’s a particular logic that emphasizes a good picture over any other implications, and he makes it seem both appropriate (at least for a while) and, in the end, protective. Sorel Carradine matches him in tone as Duquesne’s daughter Abby. For her the art has allowed freedom and a way to process the difficult moments of her life, or abstract it into something outside herself. They make a solid team, which allows the drama around the characters to come up against a wall of safety most evident as it cracks and reforms.

Jonathan E. Grey’s practical lawyer and friend balances out the insularity of the Duquesne duo, Lucas Alfano gives Abby’s wealthy and mercurial boyfriend an edgy, dangerous quality which underscores her deceptively calm home life. Stephen Tyler Howell creates in the shooting victim the kind of superficial self-centeredness which makes him almost completely unsympathetic, particularly as the denouement unfolds. Asia Lynn Pitts, as a writer from an arts magazine recently bought by Rupert Murdoch, offers the populist approach to artists and art which strays so far from the artistic community Duquesne identifies with.

One is often concerned when a playwright directs his own work, but here that creates a seamless sense of intent. Zeilder knows what the play is saying, and needs to say, and has the right cast there to make it come alive in just the way he intends. Pete Hickock’s set and Matt Richter’s lighting – almost a character itself sometimes – and sound design bring a sense of the immediacy and reality to the piece, and Will McMichael’s fight choreography allows a particular menace which proves the perfect explosion of the Duquesne home’s outward calm.

In short, “Nude/Naked” becomes a critique of the possibilities of art in a world of superficial judgmentalism at the same time it explores the underlying reasons for artistic choice and the demons which are sometimes exorcised thereby. It makes for a riveting evening of theater. Come early, as the biggest issue at this venue is finding street parking.

What: “Nude/Naked”  When: through February 17, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays  Where: McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood  How Much: $25. Info: 310-204-4883 or http://www.sewersocialistprods@gmaio.com

 

 

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