The Emperor’s Nude Clothes

A still from Young Jean Lee's UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW

The two most immediately striking things about Young Jean Lee’s latest show, Untitled Feminist Show, are that the women performing the show are totally naked throughout the entire performance and, especially considering it’s the most recent work from one of America’s hottest new playwrights, it has no spoken, sung, or projected text.  Admittedly, it’s the fact that the women are naked that is the most striking aspect of the show and is undoubtedly what accounted for its successful run at the Walker Art Center’s Out There performance showcase this year.  Still, the reasons for the nudity and lack of text are related, and it’s the way they’re related that ultimately caused the production to feel like it was skimming the surface of the profound issues it raised rather than fully engaging with them.

The show consisted of what seemed to be a mixture of dance pieces and pantomimed sketches that, according to Lee’s program notes, were less “trying to define feminism or make a feminist argument” than trying to “imagine an alternate reality for people with female bodies in which there were no gender limitations on their identities and they could be completely fluid.”  That this would be achieved with naked female bodies is a bit counterintuitive, but as Lee further explains, “the performers are nude because I wanted to reduce the number of signifiers people could use to impose identities on them, gendered or otherwise.”

Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke and Katy Pyle in UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW.

While it might be true that nude bodies are shorn of at least some identifying signifiers, there seems to be something of a missed opportunity in striving for such a state.  Theater is a space for transformation, a fact readily apparent as the women in the show adopt a variety of personae from sketch to sketch, enacting Lee’s vision of a world in which people “were allowed to be however they wanted at any given moment without being constrained by gender roles.”  But if gender roles are constraining, why not use the transformative powers of theater to show how the significations that impose them can be transformed, resignified to say what we want?  Taking up that practice outside of the theater, we potentially can be however we want within the signifying world we live in, rather than in some vaguely utopian space outside of it.

However, it seems that it is the appearance of the very world we live in that Lee wants to hold at bay, at least for the running length of the show.  And it is for this reason that the show has no text.  As Lee explains in the program notes: “Eventually, it became clear that our imaginary utopia of unlimited transformation could not include speech or text of any kind.  Whenever we tried to incorporate it, it would immediately take the audience out of the world created by the performers, breaking the show’s spell and plunging everyone back into the real world.”  Despite all of the talent and the show’s  genuine successes, though, in order to have made that utopia more compelling, I could have used a bit more of the real world.

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