Notes on nudity: Splitting hairs on ‘Hair’

On July 5, Bobdirex opens its production of “Hair” at the Athenaeum.

And since producer/director Bob Harbin announced the show (shortly after closing his hit production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” last summer), I’ve been hearing will-they-or-won’t-they chatter about the show’s infamous nude scene…along with misinformation about what exactly that scene is about.

First of all, for those of you who only know about “Hair” secondhand, be advised that the scene isn’t prurient nor sexual at all—at least not in productions I’ve seen.

Yes, “Hair” is set in a world where “free love” was one of the mantras and traditional partnering was only one option when it came to love and/or sex. And there are plenty of other places in the show where traditional coupling isn’t the only configuration.

But that’s not what the scene is about.

The scene takes place at the end of the first act, during a song called “Where Do I Go.” In it, a young man, Claude, is wrestling with what he should do about being drafted. Is it really worth dying for your county when your country doesn’t seem to care about you and your generation? Whatever you think of the Vietnam War, the musical asks you to identify with the torment of this guy. And when other members of his tribe of friends join in, we see those feelings multiply exponentially. He isn’t alone in asking this question.

Later in the show, the tribe wonders “How dare they try to end this beauty?” and, still later, they morph Shakespeare’s line “the rest is silence,” pleading with the world to understand that this body is all we have here and to waste it is beyond criminal. Those lyrics connects to what we’ve been hearing from the beginning of the play—songs that celebrate and wrestle with the frailty of the human body.

In the midst of “Where Do I Go,” we see those bodies—lots of them—unadorned.

And if the scene works, it’s deeply moving.

The problem with nudity on stage, of course, is that it can distance the audience from the theatrical experience, making us aware of these people as actors rather than characters. But in a good production of “Hair,” that doesn’t really matter. If the moment—and it really isn’t much more than a moment—works, the distinction between character and actor blurs as we see them as people in all their limited, beautiful, searching selfness.

And if you are more shocked by the nudity than you are by the fact that more than 58,000 of Claude’s peers were killed during the Vietnam War, then you’ve missed the point of “Hair” completely.

Note: While I have to miss opening weekend, I’ll be catching “Hair” in its second week at the Athenaeum. Look for a review shortly thereafter.

Oh, and if I see you take out your cell phone camera doing the show, I may upend your seat with you on it. You've been warned.

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