Bareback Ink – All Groan Up

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Bareback Ink, Photo Credit: Daniel Ettinger

A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS

[Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of this review (and, I admit, it was a difficult one for me to write for a variety of reasons), I need to clarify a few details of terminology.  I will, at times during this review, use words and phrases common to the gay community, of which I myself am a member.  Please use the comment section and ask if you find yourself questioning definitions or word choices.  AGAIN: the text of this review will use homosexual references, terminology, and descriptions of sexual acts. You should be 18 years or older to proceed (and if you’re not, get off my lawn and go back to your Legos young’ins!).  With that out of the way… here we go!]

Iron Crow Theatre’s Bareback Ink, written by DC based playwright Bob Bartlett,  is currently running on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus in the the Mattin Center’s Smirnow Theatre.  My issues with Barlett’s text began with the title. The term “bareback” strikes an uncomfortable note in my subconscious.  When I hear it, I immediately feel dirty.  In the gay community, the term describes the act of two men having unprotected anal sex, often (not always) fetishising or fantasizing risky behaviors.  Along those lines: I believe that whatever the hell you want to do behind closed doors (or in my backyard) is your own business.  I won’t judge you.  Two consenting adults can bugger each other with Criscoed icicles for all I care.  Put gay sex references and (implied) butt-sex on stage, though, and that’s another matter.

At that point, I will judge you freely.

What makes it all the more confusing is the fact that (surprise!) this show is not even about the titular bareback sex… or even really about getting inked (I think?  It’s hard to say.).  Even so, there might be an implied responsibility of the company to indicate at some point, somehow, that they hope the audience will make responsible decisions regarding their sexual practices.  Or am I being overly starry eyed?  I’m sure Chase Brexton would have purchased a ½ page ad in the program for free HIV testing.

I had a really hard time paying attention at Bareback Ink.  I think my ADD kicked into full throttle when I realized early on that I didn’t feel for any of the characters.  This is especially sad given that there were only two to keep track of.  We had “Canvas” (Tanner Medding) and “Artist” (Steve Satta).  The plot is loosely based on the Ganymede myth, in which Zeus, the king of the gods, takes the form of an eagle and kidnaps a young Trojan for his own nefarious purposes.  The show opens with Canvas in a pool of light rubbing himself, tweaking his nipples, groaning, and licking his lips all while talking about his deepest “darkest” bareback gay sexual fantasies. This reads as emotionally coreless shock value at its most stereotypically queer.  From there the whole thing quickly veered into over-the-top territory.  Bartlett tries much too hard to depict the man/boy relationships of ancient Greece during pubescent rite-of-passage in a contemporary, but thinly veiled, context.  It’s confusing, overly mysterious, abstract, and downright unbelievable.  No, seriously.  I did not believe any of it.

I mean, it’s of course possible that I missed the entire point of the play.  But was there a point?  If there was, wouldn’t I have cared about at least one of these characters?  It’s a confusing mishmash.  For example:  when Canvas talks about “The Cage”, is it a dancing cage, like go-go boy style? Is it an S&M cage where he is literally locked away in waiting for the next sexual plunder?  I get that we’re supposed to be grokking these ominous mythological references –  but shouldn’t I be scared for Canvas? Shouldn’t I feel something?  Anything?  It’s not that Medding and Satta weren’t giving it their best, they were acting their hearts out up there and they were, of course, fun to watch (it’s always fun to watch talented actors do their thing).  But I couldn’t shake the sense that I was missing something big.  It didn’t help that I found myself getting quite frustrated by the over-obvious references to gay club culture which seemed more early 2000’s than present-day (as indicated in the program).

At some point, you kind of give up on deep understanding with a show like this.  Having difficulty grasping what I was watching, I decided to stop thinking about the plot and simply enjoy it.  Even that tripped me up.  I kept focusing on the little things that were off.  Liiiike…it was inconsistent how Canvas reacted to the pain of his tattoo, bouncing around the prison-like tattoo basement (parlor?).  A tattoo on the back is painful, really painful. All.. the.. time… not just while the needle is literally piercing your skin.  You can’t carelessly throw a shirt on directly after having ink done on your spine.  And then I got distracted by director Ryan Clark’s artistic decision to not apply any makeup to Sata’s (lovely, I must say) body to make him look like an actual tattoo artist.  Hold the phone.  A tattoo artist without any personal ink?  Ohkay.

Design-wise, I missed some important moments that happened upstage due to Alec Lawson’s lighting, but it worked just fine elsewhere on the stark set designed by Heather Mork (rock on with those beautifully painted tiles Heather!).  The play has a lot of literal references to “the man upstairs” (SPOILERZ: It’s Zeus!) excessively punctuated by lightening sound effects.  Jessye Black seemed to run out of .mp3 files and used the exact same effect over and over and over again.

Groan.

The venue was a bit dark and sketchy outside, even if it was on the JHU campus. They could do with a nice A-frame wayfinding sign outside directing people into the proper building.

The Bottom Line:  Bareback Ink is not for everybody, which is unfortunate as some people could really use a nice whack on the head with the gay stick (tee-hee-hee, I said “gay-stick!”).  Iron Crow’s work is, as always, top-notch quality. The acting was great, the direction fine, the design mid-line.  I’m not sorry I saw the show, I just have a sad because I wish I got more out of the experience.  The text was not for me.

Running at Iron Crow Theatre until June 14th.

SECOND OPINION?

http://dctheatrescene.com/2012/07/14/bareback-ink/

http://www.dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2014/06/01/bareback-ink-iron-crow-theatre-company1/

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4 comments

  • If you have a problem with sex, that is your problem. I also saw the show opening night, and completely disagree. I think your hang-up on the perceived sexual nature of the show, and the degrading and mis-informed way you talk about it (and everything else) is disgusting. DO NOT include yourself within a queer community if you can’t even have a mildly decent amount of respect for those in it. If this were a man and a woman, I highly doubt (based on how pointed your language was) that you would have cared half as much at “implied” sex. The term “bareback” applies to any man who chooses not to wear a condom (aka – the real definition: without a saddle), but thanks for making it a purely gay-man’s term. Also, HIV is not a gay disease – it is a human disease that anyone can get, but thanks again for taking us back to the 1980s. Your writing is shameful. And if you think you missed the point, then you probably did. Leave the critical writing to real critics.

    • Nephilim Jones

      Actually, this review does everything a good review ought to. It highlights the good points and gives relatively mild demerits to the weak ones. (And what actor doesn’t like an accolade or constructive critique?) He remained well within the boundaries of civility in his account of a play he didn’t care for. My question, I suppose, is what is the quantifying attribute of a real critic? This review reads like a real critique, with seemingly legitimate criticism. Secondarily, or perhaps principally, is not the queer community rich with diverse tastes and proclivities? The reviewer doesn’t care for some of them, but he does not wholeheartedly denounce these tributaries to the culture, he merely states his own opinion of them in the context of his own person, and does nod to the dangerous aspects of both needle usage and unprotected sexual activity. What troubles the writer seems more to stem from watching yet another negative stereotype unfurl itself, and less from the fact that it is two men participating. I would guess the calamity of the relationship would be even more pointed if Canvas were a woman, and it is clear that this negative reaction does not stem from the players but the circumstance.

  • Tom L, thank you for your comment. I appreciate a good back and forth! I’d like to state that I have no problems with sex, sex on stage, sex in movies, sex between whoever the hell wants to have sex. I’m not sure where you got that information? I have a problem with sex for sex and shock-factor sake in theatre because it doesn’t develop a story as was the case in this play. My speaking about sex in a casual way, because we eat, we shit, we fuck… we’re cavemen (and women)…doesn’t translate into “degrading…” and in this play, the sex WAS DEGRADING. The Canvas was used and abused as a sex object and it was rape-like. How is that not degrading?
    You don’t know me, you do not know my life or history, saying what community I am, or am not allowed to identify with is just plain rude and egotistical on your part. Since when are you the gay governor that can vote me off the island?
    I assume the readership of The Bad Oracle is a diverse population; thus I included a clarity of the term “bareback” as I know it to be commonly used in my community. Can you argue that that term is not more common in the gay community than its straight counterpart? SRSLY? Take a quick look at craigslist if you need statistics on the use of the term “bareback.” Looks to me as it’s mostly the MSM population, not the MSW or WSM population.
    Regarding HIV and the 1980’s comment you made; You’re a fool if you don’t think HIV is a problem in our community and take my review to indicate that I was deflecting the very serious nature of its impact on the gay community to not include heterosexuals. PS: Iron Crow Theatre Produces gay themed works… nuff said. This is not about heterosexuals at all. Why even bring it up?
    Oh.. and I know my writing is shameful… Isn’t it delicious?! It sure got a rise out of you! (grab your crotch for me)

  • You’re very kind Nephilim Jones, thanks for your support. I try to be as objective and thorough as possible.. without being overly harsh or excessively doting.

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