Nudity and theater: Theater ‘d Art’s Paradise Lost

The midsummer air in the upper room theater stifled, and the box office offered complimentary water bottles. I chose to experience the play barefoot.

I knew several members of the cast personally or had seen them in other Theater ‘d Art productions, intensifying the experience. My friend Dastan played Lucifer, and Dana (per tradition from his roles in The Thorn) played a demon. And an atheist portrayed God the Son.

And then, there was the nudity. Naked Eve, I was fine with. She is like me. Naked Adam? Oh boy. Still sheltered, I braced myself.

But the nudity wasn’t shocking. Watching the Son create Eden and call Adam forth in a burst of light, I half-forgot he was naked. In the liminal space on stage, nakedness was innocent again.

So I went to this play once in July 2013 where Adam and Eve were actually naked.

And it changed my perspective on how Christians create art.

Then exactly a year ago at the Scribe, I interviewed Jeff Keele, my classmate who wrote that adaption of Paradise Lost.

I’m obsessed with theater, particularly Biblical plays, and my English major soul loves hearing an author’s backstory.

Paradise Lost was my first interactive play in a college setting. Similar to a living nativity, the audience walked between the Hell room and the Eden/Heaven room with the cast, who invited them to change seats and move around during the performance for a closer view.

At the end, the Son defended the human race to the Father, pleaded to intervene so they would not be destroyed after Adam and Eve shared the apple (from a tree composed of demon actors). And I cried. I didn’t cry in Passion Plays or in the Thorn, because I had a habit of holding in my emotions. But not here.

I chatted Cynthia Jeub online a few days later, after we’d both seen the play: “I know that part of it is me becoming more open emotionally, but I’ve seen so much worse, in terms of depictions of Jesus’ torture. But a play without torture or the act of sacrifice makes me cry. Thoughts?”

“There’s so much more being depicted, emotionally, for the actor,” she replied. “He speaks, he shows his fear and tries to subvert it. I’m showing far more of that beforehand than during. While in pain, you’re just suffering the pain. Knowing what’s coming and choosing it, that’s courage.”

Keele explained in our conversation later”

“The Son was really intimidating to write. How do you put words in the mouth of Jesus Christ and then put him on stage? That’s so scary as a writer. [He] is this religion icon to millions, and you’re going to be putting words into his mouth. […] Milton put words into his mouth, and now I’m putting words into his mouth.”

I asked him about his choice to cast Adam and Eve naked.

“That was a long conversation between me and my director had. Because Jon knew it was gonna be harder to get actors if we required them to be naked. There was some fear that it might be distracting,” he said.

“Milton describes Adam and Eve’s nudity in intricate detail, and if we were going to do a theatrical production, it would be important to present Adam and Eve as naked for the same reasons. The audience was initially surprised and shocked, but the initial [discomfort] began to fade and transported the audience into this prelapsarean state. It got the audience on Adam and Eve’s same wavelength. We […] make the audience pine for that state of innocence – that’s what’s going to make the Fall tragic.”

“You kind of need Adam and Eve naked to be able to do that,” he finished.

Christian subculture usually steers clear of R-rated content. Sometimes it seems too frightening to incorporate the grittier side of reality into books and film. But often it’s just dishonest. And saccharin.

And my talk with Jeff Keele, who describes himself as a lapsed Catholic agnostic, demonstrated how an artist can choose to incorporate edgy elements in retelling a sacred story, creating an intense and refreshing realism.

Paradise Lost crumbled the little walls I hid behind to protect myself from the uncomfortable parts of being human.

The play showed me the raw honesty of Eden, the complicatedness of the Fall in a way I identified with. And I discovered a depiction of the Son defending humanity could heal my heart more than torture scenes.

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