a diamond in the buff

A small Fells Point theater steps up to the plate to stage an edgy baseball drama - nude scenes and all

August 24, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

They won't even get a fig leaf.

Next month, virtually the entire cast of the baseball drama Take Me Out will spend 10 long minutes on stage each night in the buff. Ten of the 11 actors - all volunteers, average Joes with day jobs like fixing computers - won't have the benefit of towels, strategically placed props or artful lighting.

It's enough to give even the most dedicated of thespians stage fright.

"When I heard that I got the part, my first reaction wasn't hesitancy, exactly, but 'Oh no, how am I going to do this?" says actor Sean Mullin, 28, who admits to being more selective than usual about whom he's inviting to the production.

"My girlfriend isn't telling her parents about this one," he says, "And my dad's very supportive, but he's going to keep his distance."

The nude scenes are a small but pivotal part of the play - a fact that has caused many theaters to pass on the production. What's remarkable is that the show isn't getting its Baltimore premiere at one of the city's large professional venues, but at the 92-seat, converted fire station housing a neighborhood troupe. Take Me Out is one of the riskiest productions in the history of the Fells Point Corner Theatre, but even at this early stage, tickets are selling well.

Despite their occasional jitters, Mullin and the rest of the troupe are thrilled to be mounting the show which won the 2003 Tony Award for best drama.

"Richard Greenberg takes so many American icons and weaves them into a story about baseball," says Terry Long, who is directing the show.

"There's the redneck, the gay superstar, the cynic who's just in the game for the money. The play raises serious questions about race and class and homophobia, but it's also incredibly funny. I fell in love with the story, and I'm not even a sports fan."

Nudity still is fairly rare in Charm City - though the Baltimore Opera's 2006 production of Dead Man Walking included a scene of two unclothed, local teens. And in The Graduate, which appeared at the Mechanic Theatre in 2004, the actress playing Mrs. Robinson briefly drops her towel.

In New York, a much-lauded revival of the 1960s rock musical Hair currently is playing off-Broadway, while The Full Monty is scheduled to open on the Great White Way in October.

"Nudity on stage is still more common in New York," says Michael Harrison, general director of the Baltimore Opera. "For a while, it seemed that every time you turned around, people were taking off their clothes."

The nude scenes in Take Me Out last for a considerable time. Nothing is left to the imagination - unlike, for instance, The Full Monty, which is all tease and not much reveal.

And, the Fells Point Corner Theatre is so small, bringing absolutely every customer close to the stage. The tallest ticket buyers in the front row are hard put to fully extend their legs.

"All I can say is, I hope it's warm in the theater," Mullin says. "Maybe we'll have the audience take off their clothes, too. And, there will be absolutely no flash photography allowed."

Very few community theaters would tackle a project with these potential pitfalls. Julie Angelo is executive director of the American Association of Community Theaters, which represents about 1,000 troupes. As best she can recall, just one other volunteer company - the Midland Community Theatre in Texas - has staged Take Me Out since its Broadway debut.

"When we did the show in the spring of 2006, we chickened out and did it in very small towels," says Timothy Jebsen, the group's executive director. "We needed 11 very talented actors, who have to go back out into the community after the performance. If they'd had to perform nude, I think they would have been reluctant to accept the part."

But the folks at Fells Point never considered that option. In their minds, that would have been kind of silly. Key scenes wouldn't make sense if the actors covered up.

"Nudity is important to the show," Long says, "though we're going to handle it delicately."

As Jebsen implied, actors in a community theater have a different relationship to their audience than do professional thespians. They're not just passing through. Mullin is a medical intern. Fellow actor Tony Viglione is a physical therapist. Ed Zarkowski sells cosmetics at Macy's. These guys live and work in the neighborhood in which they, and their love handles, will be exposed to public scrutiny.

"Baltimore's a small town," says actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, 26, who plays the role of Darren, a biracial, superstar slugger who causes a furor when he holds a press conference to announce that he's gay.

"A lot of people know each other. Sure, when I got the part I wondered if I was going to be comfortable going every day to the Common Ground in Hampden to buy my morning coffee. Chances are, I'm going to get recognized at some point."

At least, he hopes so.

That awareness, however, has its drawbacks, not only for the performer, but also for the patron. After all, how much do you really want to know about your physical therapist?

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