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Full frontal

The naked truth about Beaver, Bouffons and more

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"This is a play about nudity," director Wier Harman said as he introduced the opening night of Manna at Actor's Express. The Steve Murray comedy includes undressed actors and actresses rushing in and out of each other's beds, but Harman meant that the play was about emotional nakedness and vulnerability. The opening night audience, however, paid little attention to such niceties, whooping and hooting at flashes of flesh as though they were at a bachelor party.

When plays have actors in the buff, they risk audiences ignoring everything else. As long as a show suggests nakedness, it can go to the brink of revealing the naughty bits and still keep the focus on the acting and the script. But when the costumes come all the way off, any scene with a naked actor is about the nudity, with the artistry and serious themes disappearing in the background. Dad's Garage's 1999 production of Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw undermined the humor in scenes with au naturel actors. Had the show implied the nudity, with players teasingly concealed, it could have flaunted the punchlines.

Atlanta Classical Theatre's The Credeaux Canvas, playing through May 17 at the 14th Street Playhouse, has a nude scene that initially strikes the ideal balance. Kimberly Jurgen plays a first-time model, nervous about being painted in the buff. In a dim studio, lit by the moon through a skylight, she disrobes quickly, giving the audience a quick peek, and settles in a wide armchair with its back to the audience. In the bluish light we see her head, neck, an arm and a pair of propped up feet, offering an image that's as lovely for what it hides as what it displays.

But when Topher Payne, as the play's painter, strips down, it's a much more gratuitous move. The script justifies the nudity as symbolizing the characters' relationship, but it plays like a conscious excuse for prurient content. The Credeaux Canvas shares with Manna a double standard: On stage, the actresses are caught in glimpses, while the actors let it all hang out. Perhaps theaters are sensitive to feminist charges of exploitation.

The Wide Open Beaver Festival Remounted, playing through May 10 at Dad's Garage Top Shelf Space, has an unabashed attitude about bodies and the battle of the sexes. The brainchild of Justin Welborn and Bernard Clark, the comic evening includes "Man Show"-style sketches about the battle of the sexes, with cavemen brawling over who gets to light a cavewoman's cigarette.

But it also explores sexual tensions. An extended conversation between a peep show dancer and her customer delves into the dark dynamics of the sex industry. A sketch called "Parts is Parts" features male and female performers in the flesh, while the ensemble challenges the audience to examine their own reactions by holding up cue cards that say things like: "What would your mother say right now?"

Skin can be the most effective -- and least expensive -- means for a theater to attract an audience's attention. But too much steam in a show can cloud the artistic message. Not that I'm complaining.

No nudes is good nudes?

There's no nudity in Out of Hand Theater's ensemble-created Live Nude Bouffons, playing through May 17 at 7 Stages' Back Stage Theatre. There's no clothes per se, either -- the seven title characters are a band of filthy, gibbering mutants wearing brown tights that conceal bulging, misshapen lumps. If you can imagine the Fruit of the Loom guys made out of cow flop, that's sort of how they look, but they behave more like Cirque du Soleil clowns.

With lots of screaming, maniacal laughter and whimsical behavior, Live Nude Bouffons has a high annoyance factor. Yet as the characters sing and enact bizarre rituals of body image, courtship and the pursuit of happiness, the one-hour performance develops a kind of crazed logic. Bouffons gets completely in your face. The players squirt water at the audience and at the end, in an Iraq war parody, declare war with rubber balls and toilet paper launched at the audience with a leaf-blower. Spectators are given protective plastic sheeting and rubber balls for self-defense, and the climactic combat becomes a childish hoot.

The only unforgivable aspect of Live Nude Bouffons is all the hawking and spitting at the audience, which crosses the line from being "edgy" to totally uncool. Plastic sheeting aside, there's a hygiene issue here that spectators shouldn't have to worry about. Doesn't Out of Hand know it's allergy season? Not to mention the SARS.

Opening out of town

Atlanta playwright Hank Kimmel, president of Working Title Playwrights, will have two short plays produced in June. The Heartland Theatre Company in Bloomington, Ill., will stage "The Cycle of Death," and Boston's Atlantis Playmakers will include "Tinted Windows" in their 2003 Short Attention Span PlayFest. His full-length work Daddy's Home, a comedy about stay-at-home fathering, opens May 28 as part of Working Title's repertory Triple Play at Neighborhood Playhouse's Discovery Arena.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

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