Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: March 17, 2010
Journal code: SYNT
A dangerous vamp puts the moves on a museum guard in Rarely Done's The Shape of Things
Cruel, heartless men have been a specialty of playwright-filmmaker Neil LaBute. In The Shape of Things, however, the shoe is on the other foot, and it looks like a spike heel. LaBute burst upon the scene in 1997 with the movie In the Company of Men, about two sadistic misogynists. In The Shape of Things, the current show from Rarely Done Productions at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., he needs only one formidable protagonist to show us that malevolence in female form is an entirely different toxin. Not only is her beauty an irresistible lure, but she can justify her cruelty as service to a higher ideal.
Not yet a household name, LaBute has become one of our leading playwrights through a circuitous route. He was a professor in Fort Wayne, Ind., when he made In the Company of Men, which helped him to market the trunkful of stage plays he had been writing all along. His ability to write dialogue that spikes our blood pressure marks him as a man of the theater, no matter what his devotion to the silver screen. The Shape of Things opened in 2001 at London's Almeida, one of the city's most fashionable small theaters, and came to New York City before being adapted in 2003 as a movie starring Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd, with LaBute directing. Given the intensity of the moral pressure in speech after speech, the drama can gain nothing by being opened up to real-life settings. The lines pack more punch on the intimate stage of Jazz Central, where the speakers, sometimes in hoarse stage whispers, are 10 feet away.
While lots of eye-opening things happen in two hours, such as having performers change costumes-including undergarments-on stage, it's the long first scene that really grabs the audience. Even with the greatest of playwrights, Shakespeare or Moliere, the exposition is the somewhat boring part at the beginning you have to sit through to know where characters came from and to pick up notes about what is to unfold. In The Shape of Things tension begins in the very first lines. A woman and a man begin a conversation, not so much a cute meeting as a baited trap.
Evelyn (Erin Williamson) stands before a white chain in an art museum in an unnamed college town somewhere in upstate New York, holding a can of spray paint. Then she steps over the chain. A smiling, almost apologetic guard, Adam (Nathan Young), approaches to say, "You've stepped over the line." She knows "the rules," of course, and clearly relishes the anxiety her threat of imminent vandalism presents. Although unsmiling and jut-jawed, Evelyn brings a certain charm, spouting what might or might not be sophomoric theories, such as "I hate art that is false," and "Moralists have no place in an art gallery." We do have to save such lines, though, because they mean something unanticipated but specific by the time we get to the last scene.
We know Adam is a guard even though he wears a schlumpy jacket and glasses instead of a uniform with a badge. Overly candid, Adam also reveals that he works two jobs in part because he has such a bleak social life. In time we see he's flattered by the favor Evelyn begins to pay him. But she never steps back over the chain, and he smiles while admitting he might have to enforce the rules, but he never does. It could be that he doesn't want to nip a budding romance, or maybe he just lacks the courage to do his job.
The romance indeed blossoms, so that three scenes later Adam, whom we learn from a friend rarely scores with dates, is in bed with lovely Evelyn. For some reason, she wants a video copy of their intimacy. Then again, the relationship has made Adam look more like a stud. Evelyn has obliged Adam to drop his glasses for contacts, improve his wardrobe, work out in the gym, lose weight and, finally, reshape his nose.
We know something else is going on with all the allusions to Kafka, the Pygmalion myth (not just George Bernard Shaw), Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray and Shakespeare. The guy's name is Adam, and Evelyn is a variation on Eve. Further, her full name is Evelyn Ann Thompson, or the initials E.A.T.
Changes in his appearance and lifestyle do not go over well with Adam's friend Philip (Darian Sundberg), who initially talks like a sexist pig from an earlier LaBute play. He also vilifies Evelyn personally and things she says, "At what kind of a Take Back the Night rally did you find her?" LaBute and director Roy VanNorstrand know, however, that our sentiments can be manipulated to circumscribe and even reject Philip's cautions. As theatergoers we're used to pinning our hopes on the lovers, redeemed loser Adam and driving visionary Evelyn.
When it comes to Philip's fiancée, the beautiful but shy Jenny (Marguerite Mitchell), Adam's transformation has quite a different effect. When she is alone with Adam in a coffee shop she confesses that she has become attracted to him and can no longer resist and so kisses him, which leads to a much warmer embrace. This does not mean Adam has become a stud, however, as Jenny blabs about the episode to Philip, who repeats the news to the deeply displeased Evelyn. The revelation also signals that Evelyn has been changing Adam's outward appearance while paying little attention to what has been inside his more glamorous exterior.
Although Evelyn's name alludes to the Bible, her character has more in common with female figures from pagan mythology, the alluring but dangerous woman, from Ishtar of Babylon, the Greek Persephone to the Celtic Queen Maeve. A previous Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award nominee who was last seen as the self-involved principal in the Wit's End Players comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Erin Williamson never looked like this before. She makes Evelyn's hard-driving confidence sexy, and allows that the character's inexplicable motive might actually be mysterious. Pity, though, that LaBute did not cut her long speeches at the end.
Newcomer Nathan Young, a recent transplant from Denver, is too buff and good-looking for Adam. Hard as he and director VanNorstrand work to make him a dork in the first scene, he just looks like a romantic leading man with glasses, bad hair and a bad suit. Young does, however, successfully navigate the non-visible changes in Adam's character. The actor's technique of lower projection so that we have to strain to hear him works at the intimate jazz Central venue when we grasp what the character is reluctant to reveal to himself.
Rarely Done's The Shape of Things, together with Simply New Theatre's Fat Pig two weeks ago, completes an unanticipated Neil LaBute mini-festival. This is a gutsy move for VanNorstrand to bring us one of our leading playwrights, who is still an acquired taste.
This production runs through March 27. See Times Table for information.