The actor from New England will introduce himself—all of himself—to Houston audiences with a nude scene in Southern Rapture, which this month launches the 31st season of Stages Repertory Theatre. It’s not just any nude scene. It caused such an uproar 13 years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina, that a handful of religious-right zealots forced the city council to yank funding for the arts—not the scene itself, but the outrageous overreaction to the idea of a naked man on stage, especially a naked gay man. (Horrors!)
“It took a couple of years, but the theater ended up folding,” Jon Egging explains, “and a lot of other local arts funding was lost.”
The culture war it sparked was so farcical that, a decade or so later, The Actors Theatre of Charlotte (ATC) commissioned playwright Eric Cobie to write—what else?—a farce about a once-peaceful Southern city split to bits over a man dropping his pants on stage. The resulting play, Southern Rapture, premiered at ATC
“All indications are that it went over pretty well,” says Egging.
But flashback to 1996 when Charlotte was one of only six cities (including Houston) outside New York to see the entire seven-hour, two-part “gay fantasia” Angels in America. Instead of being a feather in its cap for Charlotte Repertory Theatre, the production ignited a controversy that exploded into national ridicule for Charlotte when leaders of warring camps tore into each other on Good Morning, America.
Cobie interviewed many people involved in the infamous affair, but he was careful not to tape-record the conversations so that he would be sure to write a fictionalized account of the brouhaha, rather than a documentary. “Documentary style might work in a film or a TV special, but for a stage production, farce plays into the theatricality of the events,” says Egging. “They seem, in 20/20 hindsight vision, at this point, farcical.”
Adding to that theatricality, Egging gets to play three different characters, including the actor who disrobes, a preacher who stokes the fire, and the playwright who threatens to shut down the production if his play, titled Rapture in America, isn’t performed precisely as he wrote it.
“All three say the heart of each argument” in the controversy, Egging explains. “It’s an interesting juxtaposition. For an audience to see the same actor in each of those roles, I think, spells out, on a really human level, what each character has to say.”
First, the character of Mickey is an “actor’s actor,” Egging believes, who understands that nudity in the scene “fits into what the script is trying to say.”
In contrast, the preacher, his mind in the gutter, hears the play is about homosexuals and immediately imagines two men having anonymous sex in a public park. “He’s a preacher in the South, a Baptist kind of guy,” says Egging, who adds, “I don’t think we want him to always be out for fire and brimstone. He’s a human being.”
Finally, the playwright, one Anton Finewitz, is out to protect his creation. “He says, ‘My play is my play, and if you change it, I’ll shut you down.’”
To play each role, Egging says he will “try to set up different physical parameters for each character and how they talk.” Angels in America author Tony Kushner “might be somebody to tap into” for his portrayal of Anton, Egging suggests. “Not a straight-up imitation of him, but an amalgamate; a Jewish New York guy, but not ‘verklempt,’ not a Mike Myers impersonation” (of a Barbra Streisand fan).
As for baring all onstage, Egging says that when he was asked to appear naked, he shrugged, “As long as you guys don’t mind.”
About six years ago, Egging appeared nude throughout much of a Vermont production of Snow by Gordon Porterfield. The two-character play is about a man and a woman “in a dating situation,” Egging explains. It had previously been work-shopped in Baltimore with so much nudity that, its author complained, audiences were staring at the actors more than involving themselves in the play. Consequently, the production with Egging had less nudity, he says.
Egging moved from Boston to Houston this year after his girlfriend, Rachel Bush, was hired to develop a stage management program at the University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance. They live with their 16-month-old daughter in the Midtown area.
Having taught acting, play analysis, theater history, and oral interpretation at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, Egging landed a teaching post at San Jacinto College in the spring. This fall, he and two UH acting students will perform The Complt Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) at UH and at area high schools.
Jovan Jackson, as an actor portraying a doctor, will appear in the nude scene with Egging. Also cast in Southern Rapture are Sally Edmundson, David Wald, Rutherford Cravens, and Pamela Vogel. Directing the show is Kenn McLaughlin, producing artistic director at Stages.
Southern Rapture plays Sept. 16–Oct. 11 (previews Sept. 16–17; opening night is Friday, Sept. 18) at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway (one block west of Waugh Dr.). Tickets are $26–$36. Details: 713/527-0123 or stagestheatre.com.