The difference between being naked and being nude lies at the crux of “See Me Naked,” an award-winning monologue by Seattle actor Maria Glanz that has been remounted at West of Lenin this month, more than a decade after its debut.
Being naked means being embarrassed, deprived of covering, and ultimately ashamed. Nudity, on the other hand, is without discomfort; a condition of utter confidence. As Glanz struggles throughout the hour-long piece to get out of her clothing, she is in truth wrestling with the dichotomy of her fear of nakedness and her desire for nudity.
On a screen made of draped fabric, a slideshow of nude women scrolled languidly to the accompaniment of old-time bump and grind music. These images, ranging from oil paintings to tacky pin-ups from the 1940s, did not depict naked women as Glanz defines the term.
Backed by a drummer (Rob Carnell) banging out a vintage burlesque beat, Glanz led off with a painfully earnest striptease taken straight out of Gypsy Rose Lee’s dustiest playbook. She made it through the removal of her elbow-length velvet gloves, the requisite alluring glances at the audience, and the tossing of her hair while gyrating her hips. But when it came time to divest herself of her saucy black bustier, she panicked, fixed the audience with a wide-eyed deer-in-the-spotlight stare and fled.
When she returned, she was fully dressed in a conservative buttoned-up blue cardigan and black slacks, her va-va-voom having completely vanished. Still, she’s on stage to strip, and strip she will. Probably. In a minute. Stalling, she gabbled about the burlesque class she took to prepare for the show, her stripper cousin, and the ritual uses of nudity in the ancient world.
“What are you doing?” her drummer demanded at last. “Getting to know each other. Because it might make it easier,” she said. Then the house lights came up and the questions begin.
“See Me Naked” is more than a comic one-woman show and darling of the fringe theater circuit. It is a delightfully schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness ramble through the evolution of Glanz’s body image from childhood to the present day, coupled with an interactive dialogue with the audience about their private experiences with their bare skin.
“This will be easy. And fun,” Glanz reassured the audience, genuinely breaking the fourth wall for the first time. And as promised, she led off with a softball: “Raise your hand if you’ve been naked. Ever.”
The questions gradually became more probing. How about naked in front of more than one person? In a photo? On stage? The spontaneous confessions from the members of the audience were as varied as they were revealing. From the typical 4-year-old darting outside with no clothes on to the young girl sent onstage by her hippie parents to perform naked in the musical “Hair,” these glimpses into the private pasts of what used to be anonymous seatmates were guileless and unscripted mini-narratives that detonated briefly within the structure of Glanz’s monologue, then faded away into the darkness.
Glanz manner was frank, and her method of enticing the audience to answer highly personal questions was both gentle and unassuming. But she could be relentless. Case in point: After handing around a plate of cookies, she casually remarked to a man, “You got the second to last cookie. So, would you let us look at your penis?”
“No,” he replied, clearly startled. “I hardly know any of you people.”
Glanz persisted, then appealed to the gentleman’s wife seated next to him, asking if she’d be bothered if he complied. “It’s not my penis,” his wife said, amused by her mate’s distress. By the end of the negotiations, Glanz got him out of his jacket and shirt, then managed to convince the entire audience to remove their shoes and hold them in the air in a gesture of solidarity with the hapless fellow.
Such exchanges provoked a strong, visceral reaction, and one feels that she could, and ought to, have pushed the envelope farther during the course of the evening. However, just when the audience had crossed a line that might have led to a moment of true emotional (or corporeal) revelation, Glanz consistently backed off, returning to her personal narrative. Communal catharsis was always just within reach, but was never achieved. There was always more prudishness at play than prurience.
“Maybe if we were all naked all the time, it wouldn’t be such a big deal,” she said, underlining the monologue’s essential message about the conjunction of emotional nakedness and the body’s unclothed state. Both forms of vulnerability are highly attractive to Glanz, yet are instinctively avoided in both her monologue and her dialogue with the audience.
That is, until the climax of the piece, when Glanz looked into a mirror and saw herself — her "self," rather, body and soul — laid bare. Only then was she able to truly expose herself to the audience, as she observed the slow revelation in the reflective surface.
“This is my body,” she said, standing naked — no, nude — at last.
If you go: “See Me Naked” runs through Feb. 18 at West of Lenin, with additional performances planned for April. $20-$25. For more information, visit www.seemenakedshow.com.