Naked Frailties Commentary

Once upon a time there was a little, community college, motion picture arts program that could… and did… make a really interesting movie. Naked Frailties was produced for only $30,000 in 1998 by the faculty and students of Red Deer College. It was subsequently nominated for five AMPIA and one Leo award (Motion Picture Arts and Science Foundation of British Columbia) and televised on Showcase, Bravo, SCN, CLT, and Access.

The many accomplishments of the film program at Red Deer College are due, in large part to Larry Reese, the leadership of the film’s director and co-writer. Reese’s own acting credits include performances in 25 films and television shows including Brokeback Mountain, Hounds of Notre Dame, Unforgiven, North of 60, and Lonesome Dove.

The premise of Naked Frailties is that we can sometimes become so engrossed in our plans and dreams that we lose track of reality. And losing track of reality can be deadly if there is no way, or no one who can bring you back. This is what happens to two young actors in a college drama class. Their teacher, Mr. Stuart (John Treleaven), is casting for Macbeth. Naturally, all the students are anxious to be in the play. But two students are particularly anxious. Ross (Travis Woloshyn) and Liz (Reagan Dale Neis) are lovers in real life and desperately want to be cast in the two leading roles. We first meet Ross practising Macbeth’s lines over and over, alone in the theatre. His intensity is only surpassed by that of his girlfriend, Liz, whose determination to become Lady Macbeth borders on the psychotic.

Not surprisingly, they are both passed over. Ross is so over-prepared and sure of himself that he fluffs his lines; Mr. Stuart asks him to be assistant director instead. Liz is by-passed entirely in favour of Helen (Fiona O’Brian), a rival. The audience does not realize the extent of Liz’s competitiveness until we see her behaviour at the bar later on. Helen and two other cast members get up on stage to sing back up to the professional singer who is in mid-performance. Seeing Helen on the stage prompts Liz to stand beside the professional for a duet.

Meanwhile, Ross is having visions. Three hags haunt his sleeping and waking hours; he is terrified to see himself turning into Macbeth. He tries to warn Liz, but she cannot understand his fear. She has decided to get revenge on Mr. Stuart for not casting them in the parts they wanted. She corners him at a party with a spiked drink. When he refuses to drink with her, she drinks it herself and then fakes an hysterical reaction to a supposed sexual assault. She has won, destroying Mr. Stuart’s career, but unhingeing her own mind at the same time. Hospitalized, Liz only comes to life when Ross visits her, or when her nurse talks to her about acting.

When Helen storms off the set and Benjamin (Terry Ladd) is killed in an accident, Ross and Liz ironically have their parts restored to them. But, at what cost? Both give the performance of their lives, but Liz collapses and is taken back to hospital. After the performance, two of the students attack Ross, wounding him badly.

This is a fascinating approach to Shakespeare in  modern dress. Not only does Reese invest the play with twentieth century language and settings, he allows the play to invade the lives of the actors. It is an innovative blurring of the line between reality and illusion. The student actors can see what is happening to them, but seem helpless to escape. Lady Macbeth really does go mad. Banquo really does die. McDuff actually does see Macbeth’s hags in the end. Interestingly, the teachers seem oblivious to the degree to which life is imitating art.

Naked Frailties has all sorts of failings and faults. The demonic determination of Liz to be Lady Macbeth is a bit over-blown, as is the wooly-headedness of the faculty and administration of the college. Why on earth would they allow this play to continue? The dialogue can be wooden, the special effects a bit cheesy. But, the idea of the film is so beguiling and the overall results so startlingly good, that its limitations don’t really matter.

Evelyn Ellerman