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Daramashop's daring, actor-created look at sex and identity

Down and Dirty: Taking It All Off

MIT Dramashop

Directed by Brenda Cotto-Escalera

May 2-3 at 8 p.m.

Kresge Little Theater

Starring Aomawa L. Baker '97, Katherine E. Hardacre '99, Nicole J. Homan '00, Joseph N. Kaye '99, Rachel Perry, S. Toby Segaran '00, Andrea H. Zengion '99.

By Teresa Huang
Staff Reporter

Down and Dirty: Taking It All Off is a collective theater piece that explores sex and sexuality. The script, characters, and design were created entirely by the cast and director through improvisation and collaboration. The production is fresh and different, pushing the boundaries of traditional theater and presenting a new experience for MIT audiences.

Director Brenda Cotto-Escalera, an assistant professor in music and theater arts, describes Down and Dirty as "a collection of pieces based on stories that were told by the cast, by the designers, and by myself." The main space in which the actors chose to explore these issues is the backstage of a strip show. Seven MIT students make up the cast: Cassie (Aomawa L. Baker '97), Jenny (Katherine E. Hardacre '99), Luke (Joseph N. Kaye '99), and Gwen (Andrea H. Zengion '99) are strippers, each with their own complex lives and memories. Jack (S. Toby Segaran '00) is a bouncer for the strip club and Amy (Nicole J. Homan '00) is the daughter of the club's owner. Overlooking these characters and sometimes interacting with them is Fantasia the Fuck Fairy, a quasi-mythical and bizarre character played with terrific humor by Rachel Perry.

As the characters interact with each other, they depart into their memories and fantasies, each piece having been created within the group. Each character in the strip show has a particular issue they explore in their own manner. The issues the characters deal with are not just contained within the production, but rather are universal and free of the time frame of the strip show. The actors explore issues of sexuality through the space and through their characters. The performances were skilled and powerful. Perry was tremendously versatile and alive on stage as Fantasia. Each of the strippers were comfortable in their dialogue and interactions with each other. Baker - as Cassie, a stripper who values control over her body - was especially natural in her role and good in relating her feelings to the audience in a humorous yet frightening flashback. Also notable was a scene involving Jenny's father appearance at the club one night and how Jenny faces her past with him.

At the center of the production, of course, is sex, and the cast members of Down and Dirty are bold and straightforward with their own bodies and with their dealings with each other. The subject matter of their work is sure to shock some audience members, but their intensity and fearless approach to issues of sexuality is admirable and professional. Though a lot of their material is over the top, it's meant to incite serious thought and discussion, not offend people, and it succeeds in being daring but not tasteless.

Cotto-Escalera has directed several professional theater productions in a similar style, including Motherlands, a collective piece about sexual and cultural identities produced by Boston's Theatre Offensive. Her style involves "empowering the actors to be the creators of the whole process. It's empowering everyone, so the actors have to be researchers, they have to be writers plus performers and weave everything together."

The actors push at the boundary between audience and actor from the beginning with their powerful entrance into the theater, depicting their transformation from MIT student to actor. The cast members of Down and Dirty were fortunate to have this opportunity to work with Cotto-Escalera and her improvisational directing style. Zengion, who plays Gwen, stripper and mother of two, said, "I think that the thing that I was most pleased with in this whole process was that as a designer you have a great opportunity to be creative and create in a production, but as an actor you have a character you're usually given in a script. With this we started with nothing and we created characters, a plot, and everything, and it's like a child now. We made it, and it came from us and it is us."

Baker agreed, "A lot of times with a traditional play that's been done you have all these guidelines where you can't go that far from what the character should be,' but we were able to really mold our characters ourselves and be in charge of what we felt, how far we wanted to go with the character."

Humorous at one moment, sad at another, and incredibly passionate and moving at the next, Down and Dirty covers a variety of emotions, energies, frustrations, and sexual issues. A brave production, Down and Dirty is pure creation and an important step toward expanding traditional notions of theater.