DC Premiere of Body Awareness

Aug 5, 2012
Body Awareness

Theater J launches its 2012-2013 season with the touching, funny and offbeat Body Awareness, by Annie Baker, the Obie Award winning author of Circle Mirror Transformation. Praised by The New York Times as "an engaging new comedy by a young playwright with a probing, understated voice" and nominated for the Drama Desk Best New Play Award and the Outer Critics Circle Emerging Playwright Award, Body Awareness has delighted audiences since its New York premiere in 2008. Now the play makes its DC premiere under the banner of Theater J's bold season statement, THIS IS WHO WE ARE: Beginnings, Belonging, Becoming and Breaking Through.

It's Body Awareness Week at Shirley State College, Vermont, and Psychology professor Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) is determined to make it a thought-provoking and healing experience. However, she finds herself viscerally opposed to one of the week's exhibitions: a controversial collection of female nude portraits taken by visiting photographer-and house guest-Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer). Voicing her opposition, Phyllis cries, "The whole thing is like a joke now. I bring in a nutritionist, I bring in a race and gender panel, I bring in a f***ing domestic violence quilt, and then we have exploitative nude photographs of little girls hanging in the Student Union..."

To Phyllis's dismay, Frank's magnetic influence extends even beyond the Shirley State campus. Bonitatibus strikes up an unsettlingly flirtatious rapport with her partner Joyce (MaryBeth Wise), and an unlikely mentorship to Joyce's lexicography-loving son Jared (Adi Stein). As Joyce contemplates posing for Frank's exhibition, and Jared enlists Frank in his struggle to determine whether he has Asperger's syndrome, the unconventional household gets thrown into a hilariously earnest confusion of sexuality, identity, and family.

Reflecting on Theater J's season theme, Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth muses "When we think about the larger statement of identity that this season is, and look at the idea of 'beginnings and breakthroughs,' we're really talking about Annie Baker's emergence as a playwright. I think of Annie Baker as one of the most refreshing, engaging and impressive playwrights in American theater today. And Body Awareness is the play where she really finds her voice, which is a thrill to experience as an audience."

Annie Baker grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. After garnering accolades with Body Awareness, Baker penned the "absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny" (New York Times) Circle Mirror Transformation, which, like Body Awareness, received a Drama Desk nomination for Best New Play. Circle Mirror Transformation went on to win the 2009 OBIE Award for Best New American Play, and to enjoy a sold-out production at Washington DC's The Studio Theatre in 2010. Other works by Annie Baker include The Aliens (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, OBIE Award for Best New American Play), Nocturama and a new adaptation of Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, which made its debut at SOHO Rep in June of 2012.

While by no means autobiographical, Body Awareness does draw on certain elements of Baker's life. In an interview with The Boston Globe in 2010, she noted, "I was raised by a single psychologist mother and we spent every evening sitting at the kitchen table and dissecting our emotions and speculating about the inner life of everyone we knew." In a separate interview, Baker revealed that "The issues in [Body Awareness] that my characters were grappling with were also all issues that I'd watched my mother grapple with while I was growing up...At some point during the rehearsals for that play I kind of realized that the play was about me and mother-if we were a lesbian couple. But luckily I wasn't aware of that while I was writing it" (Playwrights Horizons, 2009).

It is fitting that a play rooted in the world of academia is directed by Eleanor Holdridge, who, in addition to being a prolific director, is also the head of the Directing program at Catholic University, and an MFA graduate from the Yale School of Drama. Holdridge made her Theater J debut in 2010 with the season opener Something You Did, and has since directed a number of Theater J's readings of new work. Other recent productions in the DC area include Double Indemnity at Round House Theatre, The Gaming Table at Folger Theatre, Much Ado About Nothing with the Taffety Punk Riot Grrrls and Pygmalion at Everyman Theatre. She has held positions as Artistic Director for the Red Heel Theatre Company, Resident Assistant Director at the Shakespeare Theatre and Resident Director at New Dramatists.

Holdridge leads a strong ensemble, including Michael Kramer and Theater J newcomers Susan Lynskey, Adi Stein and MaryBeth Wise. Michael Kramer (Frank) last moved Theater J audiences as Ben Israel in the 2012 remount of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza. A seasoned Theater J actor, Kramer has also appeared in Benedictus, Homebody/Kabul, Central Park West/Riverside Drive, and Miklat. DC audiences will also recognize him from his recent appearances in Necessary Sacrifices and The Heavens Are Hung In Black at Ford's Theatre as well as 24, 7, 365 with Theater of the First Amendment.

Playing Frank's outspoken critic Phyllis is Susan Lynskey. Like Holdridge, Lynskey also has one foot in academia, currently serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater at Georgetown University. Recently, she performed in 39 Steps at Olney Theatre Center and Pride and Prejudice at Round House Theatre.

MaryBeth Wise will play Phyllis's partner, the conflicted and vulnerable Joyce. Her acting credits include The Miracle Worker (for which she received a Helen Hayes Award nomination), The Rivals, Tartuffe, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Equus at Olney Theatre Center; Richard III with Stacy Keach, Measure for Measure and Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Frozen at The Studio Theatre 2ndStage.

Completing the ensemble is Adi Stein, tackling the complex role of Joyce's possibly autistic son Jared. Stein has appeared in readings at Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center, and last worked at Theater J as the Assistant Director of the remounted New Jerusalem. He is a recent graduate of American University, and is currently Theater J's Artistic Apprentice.

The designers for Body Awareness will create the quirky town of Shirley, Vermont. Daniel Ettinger (The Disputation) will design the set, while Nancy Schertler (The Whipping Man, The Chosen) will design lights. Costumes, properties and sound will be designed (respectively) by Theater J newcomers Kelsey Hunt, Joshua Rosenblum and Chas Marsh.