In just a few hours at rehearsal on this Tuesday evening, these men will be bumping and grinding down to a state of undress that may or may not include a glimpse of what those of a Victorian sensibility might refer to as the actors’ nether regions. (We’re going to dispense with the “Will they?” or “Won’t they?” take-it-all-off tittering right at the top of this story: As an audience member, you won’t find out until the final moments of the play. And I’m not going to ruin any surprises. There will be no more coy references to that red-hot question in the words that follow.) But for now, the atmosphere is clothed and introspective.
Maybe stripping does that to people.
Being introspective, that is. Not the clothed part. In fact, the lack of clothes is the topic of conversation.
“I’m coming to grips with the fact that isn’t quite as easy as I thought to get down to a bunch of tighty whities in front of a bunch of people,” Aaron Pierce is saying. He plays Ethan, one of the out-of-work steelworkers in this musical adaptation of the 1997 film.
“Really? You make it look like you don’t care at all,” says James Schott, who plays the unemployed Jerry. (He’s one of the leading characters, a guy in need of some “serious dental work” who’s worried about child support for his son and a proponent of the stripping idea, which is supposed to raise money for the unemployed guys.)
Pierce, in fact, was one of the first of the six during the rehearsal process to peel off his clothes in character. The other was Chris Mangels, theater professor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, whose students will have a chance to see a whole other side of their instructor in the show. Mangels plays Harold, the boss at the steel mill. He stripped down on Day One.
“I care a little bit,” Pierce replies to Schott’s observation. “Like, one of my heartstrings has a little bit of a boom-da-boom going on.”
That hint of anxiety seems part of the process of removing one’s clothing on stage, even for actors who are in excellent physical shape. And, as they readily acknowledge, none of these six men were cast because of their rockin’ bodies. They’re Everymen. Some might be a little more fit than others, but Chippendales recruiters will not be found anytime soon on any of their doorsteps.
So there’s much to discuss with these men about body image, especially what the play has to say about men versus women on the subject.
One of the major misconceptions about “The Full Monty” is that it’s just one big running joke about male genitalia. But the movie, if you recall, was a lot sweeter and sophisticated than that. It’s about camaraderie and making intimate relationships more meaningful with better communication. The musical, with a book by Terrence McNally and score by David Yazbek, shifts the story from England to Buffalo, N.Y. And it adds an extra level of gendered nuance.
In a song titled “The Goods,” the realization of this double-standard slams into the men as they’re glancing at a woman’s fashion magazine. They slip into a standard routine of rating the models’ bodies in the magazine. Then it hits them: When they embark on their own dance routine as a fundraiser, what if the women in the audience treat them the same way?
“I don’t care what you say about falling in love with the mind,” Mangels says. “People are attracted to bodies. I think generally women aren’t as shallow as men, but there are still a lot of shallow women out there.”
Jeffrey Lusk, who plays Dave — the heaviest character, with issues about his weight — thinks about the time in “Hairspray” when he played the role of Edna Turnblad, which opened his eyes to all that is involved in the performance of femininity. “And I thought, ‘Why the hell do women have to put on the makeup, the fake eyelashes, all that stuff?’” he says. “I appreciate what ‘The Full Monty’ does. It addresses the double standard. You get six men on stage, with all their shortcomings, their insecurities, and normally men don’t have to deal with that. At least in the past. We’re getting better than that.”
Pierce had a similar revelation in “Full Monty” in terms of what women can go through.
“The thing that opened my eyes the most,” he says, “and I think everyone can agree, is putting on a dance belt for the first time: getting that string just right, smack dab, Moses-parting-the-Red-Sea style, it’s quite the experience.”
“It’s not my first time in a dance belt,” Mangels protests.
“Well, it is for me,” Pierce says, laughing. “Women who put on lingerie that requires that kind of thing, the feeling of having that on and almost being violated by it for the first time, you feel pretty bad. So, yeah, I get it a little better.”
Playing the heaviest character, Lusk says he actually feels he gets off easy in the show in terms of body image.
“The fact that I’m playing the fat guy, I’m expected to be fat,” he says.
And he isn’t. He’s on the big side, he says, but definitely not as heavy as the audience might expect, which he imagines will lead people to the conclusion, “Oh, he’s not that fat.” That fact gives him extra confidence. It also suggests that body image can be as much about expectations as anything else.
Mangels is keen to embrace his own insecurities about his body, even after hitting the gym earlier this summer. (Director Joel Abels actually frowned on that, Mangels says, because his character isn’t supposed to be anywhere close to buff.)
“I’m not in perfect shape,” he says. “I still have a spare tire, and what I call the hairy bagel around the belly button. I shaved my back and broke out really bad, and I don’t know if it’s going to be cleared up by opening night, but I don’t care.”
The idea, he says, is that he likes to push himself and feel uncomfortable when doing a show. That’s part of the challenge.
For Dominic Grijalva, who plays Malcolm, there’s a love-hate thing going on when it comes to his doctrine of original skin.
“I have my good days and my bad days when it comes to my body consciousness,” he says. “It must have been a very good day when I decided to audition.”
The group laughs.
There’s an added factor that makes this “Full Monty” cast feel even a little more vulnerable than their counterparts on Broadway when the show played in New York: the size of the venue. In the intimate Pessano Theatre, audience members are sitting close enough to where some can literally reach out and touch the actors. That up-close-and-personal dynamic can mean great things in terms of emotional intensity, but it also can make everyone feel more vulnerable — actors and spectators alike.
The good thing is that the show isn’t just about one male stripper. It’s about a half-dozen taking this journey together. There is strength in numbers.
Laron Lee Hudson, who plays the role of Horse, says something clicked in just the past few days when it comes to comfort level. “That whole entire fear thing is out the window,” he says.
“One of the good things about this show is the concept of community,” he says. It has a lot to do with the unheard working class that is a big populist movement in America right now. These guys feel better because they’re doing it together. And I feel better doing it with these five guys.”
In the end, it just might come down to what acting is all about: filling another character’s shoes. And then maybe removing those shoes (and everything else).
“You do whatever is required to make a great show,” Lusk says. “If that means taking off my clothes, then so be it.”
“The Full Monty,” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 21, Dan Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North Performing Arts Complex, 2770 E. International Ave. Runs through Aug. 6. $25, $22 students and seniors.
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