This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Let's start with the obvious pun: Naked ambition won't be the only thing on display when Wasatch Theatre Company launches its production of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" at the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
All seven actors in the Salt Lake City production will briefly appear naked in a skinny-dipping scene at the conclusion of Terrence McNally's critically noted play, about the shifting dynamics among eight gay New Yorkers of the AIDS generation during three summer weekends. The play had a successful 1995 Broadway run (including the Best Play Tony Award) before it was made into a 1997 Hollywood movie starring Jason Alexander, but the work still is often summarized by its casual use of full-frontal nudity.
Staging the bittersweet dramedy at the Rose Wagner, a 75-seat facility, is a dramatic coming-of-age for a group that until 2001 performed in a West Valley City deli owned by a founder's father.
To understand the size of that artistic leap, you need to hear about the night the lights went out. That was five years ago, when the makeshift stage at Jim's Soupers was plunged into darkness after the power failed in the final act of a performance.
A family-owned eatery isn't the easiest place to produce theater, says Jim Martin, the deli owner's son and Wasatch's volunteer artistic director. Moving all the tables for weekend productions was exhausting. And, Martin says: "It was stressful on the deli."
Plus the company's nonstrategic philosophy - "we basically choose shows we like," Martin says - made it difficult to attract a large audience. During four seasons, Jim's Soupers was the home stage for an eclectic variety of productions, from the '70s-era musical "Godspell" to Neil Simon's snappy "Plaza Suite," even Samuel Beckett's absurdist "Endgame." When productions did draw a capacity crowd to the deli's 40 seats, the audience was mostly friends and family.
What happens next is about the show going on, of course, but it illustrates how the charm of amateur theater contrasts with the professional polish of the city's larger regional companies.
After the power failure plunged the deli into darkness, an audience member leaped from his chair, rushed to the parking lot and pulled his vehicle up to the sidewalk. In the glare of headlights, the cast finished the show.
That story of where the company so recently came from also illustrates how big a leap of faith was required for Wasatch - after nine years of shows, still blessed with more love of great theater than technical prowess - to even attempt to produce "Love! Valour! Compassion!" After all, the company's most recent show was its children's theater production of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
In the late 1960s and early '70s, New York productions of contemporary plays such as "Equus" and "Hair" were noted for what was considered a "cutting-edge" use of nudity. Nearly four decades later, going bare isn't unheard of on Utah stages, with such recent examples as Salt Lake Acting Company's 2002 production of "Big Love" and the now-defunct Emily Company's 2000 production of "Wit."
"It's still pretty rare in such a family-friendly market, other than the staff on a daily basis," joked David Mong, SLAC's media relations director.
In a way, there's a purity of artistic freedom available to a community theater company, like Wasatch, which can still apply a pay-as-you-go-philosophy, thanks to its crew of volunteer administrators. Yet producing the adult-themed play did require fiscal discipline. To raise a $6,000 production budget, which is triple the amount invested in staging any past shows, Wasatch scrimped by producing an entire season of plays that didn't require royalty payments, and it scored its first-ever grant, $3,000 from the B.W. Bastian Foundation.
What that budget means is that the cast, director and production crew will be paid. Those salaries, another company first, are minuscule but still represent a symbolic step forward.
Despite the financial commitment to the production, it still seems counterintuitive for a young company without a big-venue track record to stage McNally's play at a county-owned facility. Before the production was booked at the Studio Theatre, Martin and the play's director, Jerry Rapier, consulted with Salt Lake County officials, who requested a district attorney's office review about the labeling of the show.
What was under consideration wasn't whether the play could be staged at the county facility - Wasatch Theatre Company's First Amendment rights guaranteed that - but how to respect community standards and appropriately warn potential ticket buyers of the play's content, said Phillip Jordan, director of the county's Center for the Arts. That was solved with the bold, black letters spelling out "Adult Content & Nudity" in an advisory included in the company's ads, and posted at the county's box office and at http://www.ArtTix.org.
"Love! Valour! Compassion!" centers on a series of visits to the weekend retreat of Gregory, a dancer who feels frustrated facing the end of his career. The question of what it means to grow old in a youth-obsessed, AIDS-threatened culture is prompted by the presence of Ramon, a younger dancer whose youthful naivete and flirtatious nature complicate several relationships. The script messes with time and convention, as characters casually step out of the scene to explain what's happening to the audience.
"For me, the play doesn't feel dated," says Rapier, the producing director for Plan-B Theatre, the company that recently revived its successful production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." "What it does, beautifully, is make these believably human characters, who just happen to be gay, and considers the dynamics of their relationships."
Still, most area theatergoers are likely to stay away from any blue-themed play.
"We could alienate people," says Martin. "We hope not. We don't think it should. We hope there's a payoff in helping us develop our audience base."
"Love! Valour! Compassion!" opens Thursday and continues through Jan. 22 at the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Show times are at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays , with 2 p.m. matinees on Sunday and Jan. 22. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at http://www. arttix.org or by calling 801-355-ARTS. The show contains adult content and nudity.