NAPLES PLAYERS: "LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES"
It takes a lot to get Southwest Floridians riled up over art. While residents protest big banks, foreclosures and politicians of every stripe, theater escapes the signs and speeches.
At least until April.
It was the first time protesters had ever showed up at any Collier or Lee county theater in decades, although it was far from the first time action behind the footlights had made waves.
"The Early Girl," a Caroline Kava play about a bordello in a small Western town, caused a ruckus once word got out about its content. Island Theater Company co-founder Pat Berry chuckles as she remembers the furor over an April 1977 production by the Marco Players, then called the Marco Island Players.
"All the pastors on the Ecumenical Council on Marco Island got up in the pulpit on Sunday and told people not to go," Berry said.
The effort to stamp out sin on sleepy Marco Island backfired though. Berry said the attention drove curiosity seekers to the theater in droves just to see what all the fuss was about.
"The Early Girl" sold out before it ever opened. Berry keeps the poster - with a photo of the cast and a "SOLD OUT" banner emblazoned on it - on the wall in her office to this day.
While the play, about the lives of prostitutes, discussed frank themes - it never dangled bare flesh in front of audiences. In ultra-conservative Southwest Florida, few theaters risk angering patrons by having men or women disrobe on stage.
The Naples Players production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" may be one of the first to crack the "hey there, I'm bare" barrier, although two shows have tiptoed near the no-clothes line before.
The Naples Players also skirted the line when a male character (Tony Oteri) in a 2007 production of "Enchanted April" dropped his towel on stage, allowing audiences a flash of his posterior. That scene, though, was played entirely for comedy.
"It got a big laugh," Naples Players artistic director Dallas Dunnagan said.
"Wit," Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an erudite university English professor battling cancer, allows theaters the option of a dramatic final scene with or without clothes. In "Wit," the central character dies and "walks into the light" immediately before a blackout to end the show. The scene can be performed in various states of undress to suit the sensibilities of any theater's audience.
"There was much discussion going in about whether I could appear nude in the final moments of the play," playwright and actress Janina Birtolo, who performed the role for the Naples Players in 2008, said. "The compromise solution was that I disrobed while walking, facing away from the audience and in very low light and kept underpants on."
"Wit" was performed in the Tobye Studio, the Naples Players' smaller black box space where "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" will also play; Birtolo said that to her knowledge, "there was not a single comment for or against this bit of nudity."
Florida Repertory Theatre adopted the same stance when "Wit" was part of their 2000 season.
"We did have nudity in 'Wit,'" associate director Jason Parrish said. "[The actress] walked (with her back to us) into the light, and no one really made a fuss about it because it was a tender and heart-wrenching play about cancer. It was in no way gratuitous or sexual."
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses," with content that explores explicitly sexual themes as it examines love, power and more on the eve of the French Revolution, may test those boundaries, although the Naples Players have made efforts to inform audience of the content before they buy tickets.
Dunnagan also believes the nudity is necessary for the content of the show, saying it is done "very tastefully in context of the characters."
Theatre Conspiracy has long championed ground-breaking work, including an early 2000's production of Edward Albee's "The Play About the Baby." The show featured one of the only instances of on-stage, full-frontal male nudity ever in Southwest Florida when Josh Chapman darted across the stage naked.
Theatre Conspiracy founder and artistic director Bill Taylor said the actor - who is no longer involved in community theater - was completely comfortable with the brief moment of nudity.
"I'll do it!" he reports Chapman saying. "There wasn't much of a discussion."
Taylor, when posed a question of whether theaters should keep nudity in a show when a playwright called for it in a script, mused the question.
"Sometimes it is gratuitous," he said. "Sometimes it is not really necessary for the experience of the play."
Taylor said that no patrons ever complained in a "negative way," it was always more of a "Did I see what I saw?" comment.
Theatre Conspiracy often tackles outre material; Taylor said he expected protesters for his production of Terrence McNally play "Corpus Christi," although none materialized. The controversial show depicts Jesus and his disciples as gay men living in modern-day Texas.
Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall also received letters and complaints during the run of Broadway musical "Spring Awakening" in January 2010. The first act featured a brief love-making scene that exposed a male actor's rear and a female actress's breast.
Barbara B. Mann general manager Scott Saxon once faced another strange, and even more strident protest; this one came complete with protestors waving signs in front of TV cameras outside the theater. The incident happened prior to his tenure in Fort Myers.
In 1996, Saxon was working at a theater in Buffalo, New York. He describes a 6 a.m. phone call from a television station, wanting a comment on protesters.
"At the same time," Saxon said, "My tech director - who's laughing hysterically - rang in on my call waiting to tell me that there was a group of about 15 people protesting with signs outside the theater."
"I turn on the morning news," Saxon said, "and there is this group of people carrying signs and chanting: 'John Tesh is an alien. Don't let him communicate with his home planet.'"
"They are still doing it," he laughs. "Always an adventure in our business."