As Congress was passing the Respect for Marriage Act last week, members of Pasquerilla East Musical Company (PEMCo) were hard at work preparing for their fall show, “Bare: A Pop Opera,” which features a closeted gay couple.
“Bare” is a rock-musical focusing on the secret lives of a group of private Catholic boarding school students. Although the musical’s main protagonist is Peter (Josh Vo), a closeted Catholic teen, the musical converges around the life of Peter’s roommate and secret boyfriend, Jason (Luc Plaisted). Almost everybody else in the musical is connected to Jason in some way: insecure Nadia (Olivia Seymour) is his sister, the — by reputation — promiscuous Ivy (Avery Trimm) has a crush on him and Matt (Tim Merkle) is jealous of him for stealing away his role in the school play and his crush, Ivy.
Vo is an incredibly compelling lead as Peter. He’s not only a great singer, but he plays Peter’s struggle to accept his sexuality in a remarkably compassionate way. He shines in his solo “Role of a Lifetime,” with his voice delicately rising and falling – but never losing strength – as he sings, “God, I need your guidance / Tell me what it means / To live a life where nothing’s as it seems.” Peter’s queer experience is directly informed by his Catholic upbringing, slowly turning from religious paranoia in the opening act (“Epiphany”) to joyous acceptance (“God Don’t Make No Trash!”). Encouraged by his vision of the Virgin Mary (who he humorously mistakes for Diana Ross) and the support of his drama teacher, Sister Chantelle, Peter gains the courage let the world know who he truly is and come out to his mom in a heartbreaking performance of “See Me.”
Likewise, Plaisted navigates Jason’s complexity with a grace that makes the difficult role look easy. Jason is the musical’s anti-hero and a narrative foil to Peter. He’s the typical Troy Bolton-type: popular and top-of-his-class, but hiding a secret that might jeopardize his reputation. But in this case, Jason loves a boy instead of musicals. Fearing how his family and friends will react to coming out, Jason keeps his relationship with Peter a secret – to the extent of cheating on him. He betrays Peter when he kisses Ivy, then goes all the way with her in an explicit performance of “One.” He also betrays his faith, flinging his rosary across the stage after a priest essentially tells him to “pray the gay away” (“Cross”). At every turn, he never fails to run away from his authentic self and leaves a trail of destruction in his wake: a betrayed Peter, a pregnant Ivy and a heartbroken Nadia. Yet, Plaisted’s performance makes Jason somebody who is hard to hate.
Trimm and Seymour balance out the starring cast with riveting performances as roommates Ivy and Nadia. Although the characters seem diametrically opposed from the start, they aren’t so different. Nadia and Ivy are both victims of the same patriarchal structure, just at opposite ends. Nadia is insecure about her appearance (“Plain Jane Fatass”) and Ivy is scared that people see her as just another pretty face (“Portrait of a Girl”). The strength of their friendship is solidified when Ivy tearfully confides in Nadia about her pregnancy (“All Grown Up”). Nadia is easy to dislike given her internalized misogyny and general over-the-top teen angst, but Seymour’s performance turns her into a charming side character. Ivy, however, is given more complexity from the get-go and Trimm tackles the role exceptionally well.
The cast is rounded out by sophomore Angie Castillo as the spirited Sister Chantelle and the Virgin Mary, who adds levity to the serious themes with the fun musical numbers. The choreography and backup dancers in “911! Emergency!” is an excellent addition to her performance as a sassy Virgin Mary. Merkle adds a certain shyness to Matt in a duet with Vo (“Are You There”) showing the trials and tribulations of love are, in fact, universal. Graduate MFA student Jacob Moniz is perfectly cast as St. Cecelia’s resident bad boy, Lucas, in a performance reminiscent of Patrick in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
While the set transitions were a bit laborious at times, the dynamic set design for the smaller Washington Hall Lab Theatre effectively distinguished changes from school chapels to dorm rooms to raves and parties and back again. The costume design was also heavily influenced by traditional Catholic school uniforms. Some characters even have their own twist on the St. Cecelia dress code: Ivy keeps her blouse unbuttoned while Nadia hides away in a gray cardigan.
Although PEMCo did a great job with this production, “Bare” is a little outdated. Since the musical was written in the early 90s, right off the tail end of the devastating AIDs epidemic, the tragic ending ultimately feels like a byproduct of the loss felt by the gay community. I believe it was difficult for writers Damon Intrabortolo and Jon Hartmere to imagine a happy ending for Jason when a happy ending was robbed for so many gay men, but his death felt unnecessary and tactless. I, for one, am glad there are other stories that leave space for queer joy, and happier endings.
Despite my qualms with the ending, it’s important to acknowledge the context in which PEMCo’s production took place. “Bare” premiered fifteen years before same-sex marriage was signed into law. This run of “Bare” was performed just days after the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), which allows same-sex couples to get federal benefits and recognizes out-of-state same-sex marriage, passed in Congress.
Yet, hate crimes are still happening. Yet, the University stays silent. Yet, the University’s non-discriminatory clause excludes both sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, conservative groups on campus continuously condemn the LGBTQ+ community and RFMA. Sadly, “Bare” and its message remain progressive.
PEMCo’s production of “Bare” dares its audience to embrace authenticity and closely examine our relationships. It bravely presents our campus community with a choice: Do we stand behind LGBTQ+ students like Sister Chantelle or do we fail them like Jason’s priest? Shouldn’t the University authentically stand behind its claims about diversity and inclusion?
When I left “Bare” and looked at the faces of my classmates, I wondered how much we really allow ourselves know each other. I wondered in what ways each and every one of us run from authenticity. I wondered what we look like “stripped bare beneath all the layers” and the things we don’t talk about and why.
Musical: “Bare: A Pop Opera”
Director: Trey Paine
Produced by: Pasquerilla East Musical Company
Starring: Luc Plaisted, Josh Vo, Avery Trimm
Where: Washington Hall Lab Theatre
When: Dec. 1- 3
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5