This is not a theatre review. Not exactly anyway. This is more of a stream of consciousness reflection on a show that opens tonight (Friday April 11) - The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute, featuring some very talented young actors, most undergrads at USC. I was fortunate enough to see a rehearsal earlier this week. The show only runs for two performances, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM, at the Benson Theatre on the USC campus. Benson was once the old elementary school for the Wheeler Hill neighborhood, right around the corner from Bates, just off Pickens Street at the top of the hill. (Or "near where the old Purple Onion used to be," in Columbia-speak.) The Facebook "event" page is here.
LaBute is known for small-cast, ultra-realistic plays that tackle issues of relationships and ethics in contemporary society. Two similar works, Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty, were produced at Trustus in 2009 and 2010 respectively. All three feature a likeable, ordinary schlub as protagonist, here a mild-mannered English major (Adam, played by Dillon Ingram) on the 6-year plan, juggling jobs as museum gallery guard and video store clerk. All feature a cocky, misogynistic best friend who's a bit of a tool, but whose natural, believable dialogue with the lead reveals the way "normal guys" interact and look at life these days. (If I were LaBute's real-life buddy, I'd be saying "Hey wait a sec - you tryin' to say something here?") All feature one or more attractive women, at least one of whom is scorned or betrayed, and one who causes the lead to re-examine fundamental values and aspects of his life. All explore themes about how physical appearance relates to self-image, self-worth, and relationships.
Here the playwright raises some really important, really uncomfortable, and ultimately unanswerable questions: what if your girlfriend inspires you to be a more confident and assertive person? What if she encourages you to work out, eat better, and get in shape? Sounds pretty sweet, especially if she is a fabulous artsy babe, a little older, worldlier, and more passionate about life. But at what stage does "you make me want to be a better man" become "you don't love the man I am?" And what if the gender roles are reversed? What if an ordinary young woman is ready to marry a boyfriend who is only 5 or 6 personality traits/flaws away from being perfect? Is she tolerant, loving and accepting... or settling for a guy who doesn't deserve her? What if she becomes attracted to a more compatible male friend...but only after he loses weight and becomes more confident? Does that make her suddenly insightful? Or awfully superficial?
As the "manic pixie dream girl" (described by director Bakari Lebby in his guest blog a few days ago) determined to remake her man in her chosen image, Katie Foshee starts the show as a defiant, Nirvana T-shirt-clad rebel, preparing to deface a statue as an artistic statement against censorship. We expect the plot to center around the nature of "What Is Art?" subjective vs. objective, but soon we're into the deeper, darker territory of intimacy and betrayal. Or are we? Elegant, icy, calmly assertive in 5-inch heels and a mini-skirt as she presents her MFA project towards the end, Foshee gives a very subtle, under-stated performance. Is Evelyn - yes, the main couple are Adam and Eve(lyn), if there's any question as to the universality LaBute is channeling - a free spirit, an extremely experimental artist, a manipulative and bitchy girlfriend, or a sociopath? Possibly all of the above, but nothing is as it seems, and a plot twist that was foreshadowed extensively and repeatedly caught me totally by surprise, thanks to Foshee’s commitment to and underplayed portrayal of her character. Dillon Ingram starts out resembling a cross between Patrick Wilson in Watchmen and Johnny Galecki in Big Bang Theory, which is appropriate, given the Leonard-Penny vibe that Adam and Evelyn have. Indeed, the wacky beauty and the uptight establishment type turn up everywhere in pop culture, from Hepburn and Grant in Bringing Up Baby, to Dharma and Greg. Yet as above, things are not as they seem, and plentiful references to literary predecessors like Pygmalion and Frankenstein that explore the relationship of the creator to his creation only hint at some of the complex turns the plot takes. In retrospect, even random references to films like Blade Runner, a movie in which some creations seek out their creator looking for answers, while others are oblivious to their real nature, seem unlikely to have been coincidental.
Patrick Dodds, the only non-USC student involved, first blew me away a year and a half ago in Spring Awakening, with his heart-breaking portrayal of Moritz, a boy unraveling before our eyes. Just a few months later he was rocking out as a smooth T-Bird singing "Magic Changes" in Grease, and a few months beyond that he was singing Andrew Lloyd Weber songs in Dreamcoat. Here Dodds successfully creates yet another entirely different persona, ostensibly a stereotypical chauvinist college dude, yet still a real human being with genuine feelings. I once wrote that as Moritz, he reminded me of the angsty young Pete Townshend; here, with a cocky attitude and his long jaw, sharp nose and dark wavy hair, Dodds bears more than a little resemblance to the young Bruce Campbell. If they ever film Campbell's best-selling autobiography, Dodds needs to play the lead. Catherine Davenport likewise takes a stock role (the wholesome college girl ready for marriage) and creates a sympathetic and three-dimensional character.
The great work by the young cast and first-time director Bakari Lebby points to the importance of arts education in our schools, as well as charting a sort of Six Degrees of Local Theatre Separation. Dodds, Davenport and Ingram were all theatre students of Jeannette Arvay Beck at Dreher, while Foshee studied with Monica Wyche at Blythewood, and Lebby studied with E. G. Heard at Heathwood. Heard played a LaBute heroine herself a couple years ago at Trustus (indeed, a sociopathic one, according to one review) and directed Lebby, Davenport and Foshee in last summer's Camp Rock at Workshop; her assistant director for that show, Samantha Elkins, alternated with Heard as Maggie the Cat last year, and played Davenport's mother in Brighton Beach Memoirs in January. Both Heard and Elkins stopped by the rehearsal I attended to offer some tips and notes for their young protégés.
Director Lebby is of course limited by the intimate space and shoestring budget of an all-student production in Benson, but at this tech rehearsal he was experimenting with creative lighting and tone-complementing musical effects. The play is almost all dialogue, in generic apartments, galleries and campus locales, and LaBute's ultra-realistic script forces the characters into certain directions and choices no matter what. Still, we see Lebby's artistic vision so clearly and beautifully in the show's final moments, as a sole figure is left to reflect on what has just transpired, and Lebby allows the moment to play out naturally, with perfect music and lighting enhancing the mood. Lebby just finished a successful run in The Color Purple, and one would have to be insane to simultaneously be rehearsing a lesser-known, quirky show in a bare, alternative space after success in a name-brand play... yet I did the same damn thing in my senior year in college, so I have to give him a huge shout-out. Foshee and Dodds are both performers whose work I have admired for a while now, and it's so nice to see them get the chance to delve into meaty character roles. Foshee and Ingram will be heading off to seek their fortunes on the west coast after graduation, so now may be your last chance to see them; Dodds, on the other hand, needs to enroll his ass in USC's drama program right now, and any parental/authority figures reading this may quote me, because he has mad potential.
I normally try to avoid talking too much about the type of shows I enjoy, or specific performers whose work I admire, but see above - this isn't a real review, so, like, dig it. For me, you could have successive nights of Hugh Jackman doing Les Mis live with a million-dollar stage set.... and I'd still rather see four dedicated kids on a bare stage doing something meaningful to them. This show is sometimes described as a dark comedy, a serio-comedy, or a "dramedy." I'd describe it as a dark fable about contemporary relationships and society, set in the context of college dating, with some great moments of humor (in the vein of perhaps Sex and the City or Friends) as well as some chilling implications about the choices that people make for love.
As above, The Shape of Things only runs for two performances, tonight and tomorrow at 8 PM, at the Benson Theatre on the USC campus. The Facebook "event" page is here.
~ August Krickel