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Footless ‘Body Awareness’ Asks the Tough Questions

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CHICAGO – It is a quandary that has plagued the minds of the nations foremost feminists, and even those who would better prefer the perspired mirrors of strippercize classes to the contents of “The Feminine Mystique”. Yet from Betty Friedan to Hillary Clinton, Susan B. Anthony to Katy Perry, the question regarding the often thinly drawn crease between sexual empowerment and objectification still wants for absolution..

HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 3.0/5.0
Play Rating: 3.0/5.0

Playwright Annie Baker just may be apt for the challenge. A budding New York writer (her previous works include “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The End of the Middle”), Baker takes the Third Wave’s most Daedalean questions up to bat in “Body Awareness”, a production receiving its Midwest premiere at Profiles Theatre.

Cheryl Graeff and Barb Stasiw star in “Body Awareness” at Profiles Theatre” target=
Cheryl Graeff and Barb Stasiw star in “Body Awareness” at Profiles Theatre
Photo credit: Wayne Carl

Baker’s is surely an ironic and biting pen, but the auteur is ultimately unwilling to address the plethora of Catch-22’s that oxygenate her story. Whether or not beauty can exist without sexualization, or visibility without the threat of judgment, may indeed be the stuff of philosophers’. But the pitfall of the layered “Body Awareness” exists not with its refusal to provide condensed answers, but rather its disconnected avenue for posing them.

The arc involves two lesbian partners on what abruptly appears to be a relational precipice. Having made a home together for three years, high school teacher Joyce (Barb Stasiw) and psychology professor Phyllis (Cheryl Graeff) now suffer the pangs of emotional- and inevitably sexual- stagnation. It doesn’t help matters that Jared (Eric Burgher), a newly post-adolescent from Joyce’s previous marriage, embarks on a quest to assert his own sexual positioning in the world, despite symptoms of a redoubtable mental condition.

Phyillis has been appointed faculty organizer for ‘Body Awareness Week’ at Shirley State (a University of Vermont-Burlington substitute), an annual series intended to raise attention to eating disorders. Amidst domestic violence quilts, anatomical puppet shows and gender binary lectures enters Frank (Joe Jahraus), an outlying participant whose camera lens captures the naked soma of willing women- and minors-under the tout of corpus liberation.

Frank’s arrival serves as a litmus test to the same-sex household. Phyllis, an ardent and cerebral feminist learned in the ways of both Emma Goldman and the blog posts of Feministing.com, proceeds overtly in her chastisement. Joyce, on the other hand, takes the photographer at his word, ultimately volunteering herself as his next halide subject-tweazers, bleachers, and wax putty in tow.

This centripetal issue, to be sure, is in venerable form here. After all, how can any act of sexuality- whether it intercourse or voyeurism- be construed as liberation if the use of depilatories is requisite for execution? Yet Baker’s work is fraught, and inevitably bound, by this interim. With a laconic exposition, the playwright permits miniscule in the way of character development, almost omitting the family’s individualized introspections altogether.

The cast of The cast of “Body Awareness” at Profiles Theatre
Photo credit: Wayne Carl

The root sexual conflict between the two women, one wholly independent of any photography exhibit or university-funded outreach, is never explored. You develop empathy for the characters as a result of their evinced tribulations, but it is pathos limited by familiarity. You care about Joyce’s plight for sexual autonomy, Jared’s quest for identity and Phyllis’s often fruitless attempts to balance the two, but it is ultimately a care of born of acquaintance, not emotional proximity. We don’t know these characters, only the sexual fly traps wherein they are now tangled. Which is a shame, as Baker has clearly discovered the skeletons of three dynamic, nuanced characters here.

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Despite its structural foibles, “Body Awareness” has been helmed admirably by the capable artists at Profiles Theatre. Director Benjamin Thiem tacitly weaves an environment with designer Thad Hallstein in which the characters may breathe, curse, and deflate naturally. Actors Cheryl Graeff and Eric Burgher tender superbly nuanced performers as A-type Phyllis and her troubled stepson.

Graeff in particular displays a complex understanding of Baker’s aimed-for fulcrum. Endowing Phyllis with a parity of academic condescension yet redeeming condolence, Graeff is able to navigate these questions of sexual self-fortitude with remarkable dexterity. But questions must not always be posed to beget more questions. Especially if the initial query has all but lost its footing.

“Body Awareness” runs through June 27, 2010 at Profiles Theatre at 4147 N. Broadway. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

By ALISSA NORBY
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
alissa@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2010 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

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