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Bathhouse.pptx

A school presentation on cleanliness shifts to a time when bathhouses were a social institution in the gay community.

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Gilbert D. Sanchez and Claudia Acosta in a scene from Jesús I. Valles’ “Bathhouse.pptx” at The Flea Theater (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

Theatrical productions can sometimes be exhilarating, moving, provocative, informative, perplexing, confusing, dull, or bad. Bathhouse.pptx, written by Jesús I. Valles and directed by Chay Yew, is in the realm of perplexing and confusing. In the words of Valles, “This play is a mess,” and “This play is a group project for perverts.” Even with Yew’s adept direction, the show is, in essence, episodic and, as such, confusing and perplexing.

It is supposedly about a gay 10th grade student whose power point slide show is on the history of cleanliness and bathing, but it quickly becomes something very different.

It opens with a character called Presenter, effectively played by Sam Gonzalez, trying to organize and focus the students helping him so that he can begin his presentation. He is the narrator for the different pieces of the story and the glue that holds the whole thing together.

As he tells his story on the history of cleanliness, backtracking from the invention of the shower to the existence of bathhouses, the world around him becomes detached, and what was a school presentation shifts to a time when bathhouses were a social institution in the gay community.

Sam Gonzalez as Presenter in a scene from Jesús I. Valles’ “Bathhouse.pptx” at The Flea Theater (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Each scene change is introduced with slides as if it were still the presentation of the school project, with the projections shifting to images of the interior of a 20th century gay bathhouse. In conjunction with Reza Behjat’s lighting design, Nicholas Hussong’s projection designs effectively set the time and place and shift the mood of the storyline.

It turns out that the private school in which the presentation is supposedly taking place in 2034 was once the North Hollywood Spa, a bathhouse and a gathering place for the local gay community. It is a time when there are no more bathhouses catering to the gay community. Here, history begins to come alive as the ghosts from that previous time start to appear and interact as if nothing had changed.

This is the point where the show begins to go off track for a general audience with the introduction of elements of typical bathhouse attitudes and actions involving sexual relationships, short and long-term. The depiction of the bathhouse interior has scenes with the actors wearing towels around their waists, scenes simulating sex acts, and scenes with nudity, all in a sensitive portrayal of life inside a typical bathhouse.

Gay bathhouses were safe havens for a community that was and is vilified as being “abnormal.” They provided not only a secure physical environment but also allowed for a freedom of expression, not just sexual, that was denied them in the world outside.

The play introduces a wide assortment of characters giving the deft cast of six a workout in shifting from character to character as the scenes change. Yonatan Gebeyehu, Gilbert D. Sanchez, and Manuel C. Alcazar effectively embody their different characters, from high schoolers to officious bureaucrats to denizens of the bathhouse. The standout performances belong to Claudia Acosta and Esteban Andres Cruz. Acosta solidly plays Chela, the bathhouse cleaning lady and a central character in the play, as well as several other characters. Cruz plays several characters with a comic edge and one central character, Mx. Vazquez, the speech teacher of the Presenter, with exceptional sensitivity near the end of the play.

Claudia Acosta, Gilbert D. Sanchez, Manuel C. Alcazar, Yonatan Gebeyehu and Esteban Andres Cruz in a scene from Jesús I. Valles’ “Bathhouse.pptx” at The Flea Theater (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

The bathhouses began to disappear as the AIDS epidemic began to sweep through the gay community in the early 1980’s, and casual sex became a dangerous undertaking. It is a story that will appeal to gays who experienced the bathhouse culture, mainly of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s, and those who heard stories about those times. It may also appeal to theater audiences interested in seeing edgy, progressive-minded productions.

You-Shin Chen’s scenic design captures a sense of the bathhouse environment with a series of doors framing the stage on three sides. They resemble the doors leading to the small private rooms found in many of the bathhouses. The costume design by Haydee Zelideth Antuñano ranges from parody, in the private school uniforms, to silly, in the conquistador armor, to sublime, in Cruz’s near the end of the play, and with a bunch of towels thrown into the mix. The sound design by John Gasper adds a subtle and subversive element, with the background songs acting as ghosts of the bathhouse’s past.

It is important to note that Bathhouse.pptx received the Yale Drama Series Prize in 2023. It is also the first play to earn the Flea Theater’s production commission, which provides the funds for finishing a show in development and mounting a full production. This program is for experimental new work by a Black, brown, and/or queer artist.

Bathhouse.pptx  (through April 22, 2024)

The Flea Theater

20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/14/production/1188956

Running time: 110 minutes without an intermission

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About Scotty Bennett (80 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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