The Most Naked — A Review

I’m always intrigued to see how a company will transform the Q Loft. Upon entry to The Most Naked, this latest, sold-out iteration of the work by projectMUSE founder Hannah Tasker-Poland, the arrangement becomes apparent quite quickly: we’re asked if our tickets are for the tables or the stalls. The stalls. The precise seats are designated, but ‘it’s really general admission’. As my friend and I make our way into the space, our tickets are checked again—yes, the stalls, yes, thanks—and I get a good look at the fit out: the small three-or-four-around tables, true to cabaret genre; a wide, raised stage, and a piano; layers of plush curtains; an additional red curtain, centre stage, obscuring a raised platform. My friend and I are offered earplugs. We take them.

The start of the show creeps up: performers Lucy Lynch and Holly Finch take to the stage, colour-coordinated in matching red and black dresses, every bit the traditional cabaret opener. I get the sense the audience isn’t sure whether things have kicked off yet; we go generally quiet, and a few latecomers wade, slightly shamefully, in. In many ways, we’re being set up for something we understand. But that’s already been thrown a little off-kilter. An indication, ever so subtly, of what’s to come.

The central curtain opens to reveal a figure reclined on the raised platform. A glittering, indigo gown. A face, and neck, and limbs, fully concealed in black fabric. Slowly, just as the beginning of the show crept up, the figure begins to reveal herself: she dances, at once sensual and grotesque; at times, funny; at others, almost frightening. There is a quality of the uncanny to her movements. She peels off the layers of fabric a feature at a time, face last. Here is Tasker-Poland—she chats to us as Lynch and Finch reappear, heralding the scene transition. She does her make-up onstage.

What happens next I would call a centrepiece of the show if it weren’t for the fact that just about every sequence felt as strong as this one—if anything, The Most Naked is a series of centrepieces, of provocations, of deep disruptions of form. In this, the earliest of them, Lucien Johnson (composer, musician, a pitch-perfect addition to the company overall) joins Tasker-Poland onstage, providing accompaniment as she reclines atop the piano. There’s the kind of rapport one might expect from the genre—and then slowly, but surely, Tasker-Poland tears the form wide open.

Growing increasingly unsettling, first through a series of not-quite-jokes that refuse to let up, then by morphing into something else entirely—blaring, dizzying, a triumph—Tasker-Poland wrenches open the question of the gaze: of herself, as a performer; who she is; what she’s made to be by occupying this space onstage; she forces us to think about her and ourselves and the relationship therein, the dynamics that may be shifting or not based on whether she’s calling them out; about nakedness, about arousal, about our culture of consumption. It’s heady stuff. And it’s phenomenal, in the handling. The music swells, builds so loud, so distorted; so warped and bass-heavy it’s shaking the bleachers, humming through us all—and I understand the offer of earplugs, but I also don’t reach for them—I just hold to the moment and think, god, good for them, yes, brilliant, they’ve done it.

“All in all, the theatrical world of The Most Naked is a production design marvel.”

This sound design, bold and exacting and on form throughout, is masterful. So, too, is the lighting design by Brynne Tasker-Poland, working in tandem with Emmanuel Reynaud’s set design and construction to create an extraordinary visual spectacle. Every moment of the show is stunning: any frame could have been an iconic production still. In motion, it all grows and shifts seamlessly, sight and sound synced perfectly by operating team Billie Holland (who also stage managed) and Brynne Tasker-Poland (operating her own designscape). All in all, the theatrical world of The Most Naked is a production design marvel.

This distinct world amplifies the tour-de-force at its centre, this exploration-as-cabaret-performance by show creator Hannah Tasker-Poland. She wears as many figurative hats onstage as she does in the life of the work, portraying with particular nuance the different directions in which women are pulled, the myriad roles we’re boxed into. The discipline and specificity Tasker-Poland employs as a dancer is supremely evident here: a strip tease becomes sinister, or else silly; in one instance, what may have been sexual becomes instead a sharp reminder of both the infantilisation of women and the fact that, yes, actually, we were children once—we were children once who wanted to be soothed—and what does it mean when, on a subtle, insidious mass scale, the lines of sight between all of the aforementioned have been subsisting in a blur? What does it mean for the way we treat women?

These are rhetorical questions, of course. We know what it means. Our cultural vernacular knows what it means. The Most Naked knows what it means. (The friend who comes with me to the show is a big Taylor Swift fan, so I can’t help thinking here about Tasker-Poland’s portrayal of the maelstrom of occupying her body as that of simultaneous ‘sexy baby’ and ‘monster on the hill’—because it is both! Both and all!) The approach Tasker-Poland takes to this interrogation in The Most Naked avoids tried-and-true (and tired?) didacticism, and in doing so elevates the work. 

When we arrive at—forgive the dip into Three-Act Structure alliteration—the promise of the premise, that titular nakedness deemed the most, the production handles it with characteristic potency and intelligence. (I’ll give you a moment to enjoy the ‘potency’ double entendre, if that’s your thing.) I don’t want to spoil things too heavily, because some of the delight and satisfaction of the show—which I hope continues its storied life in Tāmaki Makaurau and elsewhere—is in the exchange between surprise and delivery, between the coexistence of subversion and unflinchingly follow-through. When a gown is torn away, Tasker-Poland has already explored the array of possibilities for what might be awaiting us underneath it: lingerie, nothing at all; another dress? This particular moment is fun, delivered with a delicious almost-smugness: never forget, it seems to say, Tasker-Poland knows something we don’t.

As I’ve said, though—The Most Naked does follow through on its promises. All the salacious exhibitionism one might want out of a show like this does feature onstage: nipples, a whole breast, a vulva, a penis; in fact, all of these make their way through the audience as well, Tasker-Poland weaving through the tables on the floor. (I don’t want to give the game away, but I also can’t not give credit to the brilliant Yolanda Bartram of BODYFX, The Most Naked’s Special Effects Prosthetics Artist. Her work allows Tasker-Poland to startle, provoke, and make a very astute point without having to utter a word. So, too, does the adroit contribution of Elizabeth Whiting, responsible for Costume Design & Construction—though, unfortunately, at the tail end of the show, a zip goes rogue and Tasker-Poland has to be cut out of a stunning, ‘very expensive’ pair of boots.)

There is also far less remarkable nakedness, which works in tandem with all of the above to crystallise the show’s essential interrogation. Again, without saying too much, this is the smartest way the company could have done it, and the best way to make the point. Beyond mystique, The Most Naked poses questions of its audience and of its makers: it becomes explicitly about us and how we respond to what we’re seeing; how we’ve been socialised to react, how demanding and demeaning, how in awe, how analytical—how what we’re looking at is a person, a body, a person’s body. How we’re looking. The nature of that exchange. That constant.

“This work dissects not only the conventions of cabaret, but of consumption (even self-consumption: deliciously off-putting) in general.”

I’m always invested in art that takes apart the form it exists in. Art that takes apart the essential tenets of its container and asks why, and what for. And when said art does so in a manner as fully formed, well-rounded, and adroit as The Most Naked does, the experience is transcendent. This work dissects not only the conventions of cabaret, but of consumption (even self-consumption: deliciously off-putting) in general; it blends the annals of history with our contemporary crises—Tasker-Poland, Lynch, and Finch dance through the audience like a coven of witches, frenzied and free, then we watch as a witch (through that glorious audiovisual artistry again!) is burned; we hear echoes, at another point, of how a woman has (notoriously) ‘violated community guidelines’. And on top of all this: the show is funny. It takes itself seriously, until it doesn’t. When it circles back around, it digs in deeper. In every way, it’s polished. It’s exciting; it’s intentionally unsettling.

The Most Naked manages to contain multitudes while remaining steadfast in its singular vision. Every contribution to the company crystallises and coheres into a slick, careening whirlwind of a work. As precisely wound as it is off-putting, it’s a live performance experience unlike any I’ve seen in recent years. When it returns—as I’m sure it will, as I believe it ought to; if we’re lucky—get your hands on this hot ticket. Whether you pick up the earplugs or not, that’s your choice.

Featured photo courtesy of Q Theatre and Hannah Tasker-Poland.


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