Peter (Mackinnley Bowden) and Jason (Matt Shepherd) found each other in high school and fell in love, but the crushing pressure of their parents’ and peers’ expectations combined with the bigotry taught to them by their religious instructors has led them to keeping their relationship secret. Now, their looming graduation presses them to choose between the life they’ve been living and the one they dream of. Only fear and shame make the decision much harder than just that.
As with many stories about teenagers, the stakes of Intrabartolo and Hartmere Jr’s musical are set very high amongst an atmosphere of risky behaviour, drugs, and bullying. Their book and lyrics also cover the more private concerns of their teenaged characters like sexual confusion, peer pressure, fatphobia, and shame. Ivy (Edan McGovern) is pretty and popular but she feels deeply misunderstood by her classmates whereas her roommate Nadia (Lucy Koschel) has had a lifetime of being invisible and ignored because she’s fat. Between the lead boys Peter and Jason, Peter feels ready to let the world know about his relationship but Jason doesn’t know if he can risk losing the reputation he’s built with his family and friends. These tensions between relationships form the backbone of the rough high school years where teenagers are forced to reconcile realities and become individuals.
With the added aspect of Catholic faith and traditional teachings of the Bible, Bare takes on a slight metaphysical slant, confronting contemporary and conservative beliefs at the extreme. Directors’ Kathryn Thomas and Isaac Downey’s choice to stage this particular musical speaks to the pertinence of its characters’ struggles in the years following the demise of the Catholic church and the ramifications for religion’s place in contemporary life. The character of Sister Chantelle (Carmel Rodrigues) gestures to a hopeful future for religious institutions to settle on the heart of doctrine and belief: love.
Design is low-key, focusing attention on a centred and overbearing cross while sectioning the stage into dormitories, classrooms, and even a rave with Thomas’s lighting design. Musical direction from Steve Dula and choreography from Emily Dreyer similarly don’t over-complicate the affect of this type of story and instead build atmosphere to support the hormone-fuelled emotional rollercoaster.
The chemistry between Shepherd and Bowden on stage is fluttery and excited like all good early romances with an emphasis on touch that directly challenges the currents of hyper-masculinity that rule high school hallways. Bowden plays a loveable and somewhat guileless Peter which makes their portrayal of heartbreak even sharper. At the same time, their arc for Peter’s characterisation is well-framed and subtlety executed which makes his final scenes both triumphant and tragic. On the other hand, Shepherd’s Jason is cooler than ice until he finds himself caught in unavoidable consequences. Rodrigues as an exasperated Sister and a straight-talking Mother Mary with three angels in tow (Kathryn Solomou, Rose Rodrigues, and Ricki Jade) was another stand-out performer with big vocals and a demanding stage presence. In offering a point of comfort for Peter, she worked to override the tone of alienation and desperation that oppressive institutions cultivate.
McGovern and Koschel offer a surprisingly complex dynamic as roommates and rivals that transitions well from snarky and mean-spirited to kind in the face of uncertainty. Koschel, in particular, is well-placed to portray a character written few and far between: a fat girl who is neither a punchline nor a villain but who knows herself and recognises her talents and potential despite what the world wants her to think. She plays the pathos of Nadia well for both laughs and sighs of recognition from the audience. The cast is overall balanced between the sarcasm and self-consciousness of high school and they make good use of the disparate individual minutiae.
Bare is about making mistakes and learning, about yourself and about your place in the world around you, but it also strives to reconcile the changing landscape of the world with the volatile environment of rigid instructional institutions. In Peter and Jason and Ivy and Nadia’s personal struggles, the tensions of traditional and progressive ideologies play out with an equal mix of tragedy and hope for change.
Bare: a pop opera is running at St Aidan’s from May 10th – 25th