The Dallas Theater Center attacks Neil LaBute’s 2001 drama The Shape of Things with fiendishly razor-sharp vigor at the Wyly Theatre’s Studio Theatre black box space. An outrageous, amoral love story with gross betrayal, the role of art in society, loss of innocence, and boundaries between intimacy and manipulation at issue, the play revolves around an opportunistic art student, instructed to “change the world” by her graduate adviser, who decides to “sculpt” a vulnerable man into a more attractive version of himself as her MFA project.
Evelyn and Adam (blatant metaphor, as in flashing neon sign) become a couple as Evelyn manipulates and cajoles him into losing weight, upgrading his wardrobe, wearing contact lenses, having a nose job, cutting off his friends and even videos their love-making sessions, all in the name of making art. “It’s a visceral thing. You’ve got to feel it. Love it, hate it–it isn’t a casserole, “intones cold-hearted Evelyn, describing her “passion” as an artist. Or is it just her psychosis, cruelly projected on another human being?
Tony-nominated Neil Labute is known as a “playwright provocateur”. He wrote and produced the award-winning In the Company of Men in 1993, a savage stage play and film about two misogynist office mates who scheme to emotionally destroy a deaf female co-worker. Actors spit out words like penis and cunt with punctuated, lurid fervor in his plays, with the intention to shock and provoke thoroughly with language, situation and character. Small wonder he was “dis-fellowshipped” from the Mormon Church. The Shape of Things is part of a trilogy known as the Beauty Plays, all spinning image and beauty as dominant, often destructive features in modern American culture. “Beauty is a liability if it becomes one. We’re drawn to it, we desire it, we often despise it if we can’t have it.”
DTC’s cast of four brings each character in The Shape of Things to vivid, well-rounded life, acid-tongued to waspish, shrinking violet to compliant “Romeo.” It’s hard to empathize with any of the characters. Yet, in smooth harmony as full ensemble or as two romantically involved college-aged couples, they hold audience interest. You couldn’t ask for a better cast, tighter ensemble. Lee Trull as the pompous, overbearing Philip plays against type and creates a satisfying, if repellent, portrayal of a man who uses truth to browbeat his friends and associates. He seems to see through artist Evelyn’s manipulations, but his brusque, overly aggressive manner makes the unwitting victim Adam discount his opinions. As Philip’s fiancée Jenny, Aleisha Force builds believability into the play’s one “ordinary” character. Yes, she’s conventional and something of a doormat, but she reveals manipulative tendencies, herself. Hard to avoid thinking that LaBute dislikes and fears women immensely after seeing this play. Abbey Siegworth creates a realistic monster in Evelyn with reasoned rationale and exceedingly well-honed feminine wiles. Initially, she seems likable and earnest. In her final monologue, as she describes her MFA project, calmly, cruelly, in minute detail, the audience finds itself recoiling from her, considering the enormous extent of her deliberate abuse of another human. Steven Walters as Adam matches Siegworth’s calculated manipulation with a compliant hunger for acceptance and approval. He plays right into her game, blindly, willingly. Everyone wants to be loved; some will grovel at any level, completely re-invent themselves, to gain that love and acceptance. Never just a one-dimensional nerd, Walters’ Adam possesses an Everyman quality that inspires sympathy more than disgust.
This is a satisfying production, with only a few minor drawbacks. It whets the appetite to see the other two plays in the trilogy. Sometimes Matthew Gray’s direction limits his actors’ ability to use the entire stage or to play to both audience seating areas effectively; it’s almost as if the actors were instructed to play to 12 o’clock or to 3 o’clock at times. Donna Marquet’s monochromatic minimal set pieces backed up flush to the set’s two walls also keep the actors working in flat, limited planes. Slightly annoying, neither oddity ultimately detracts from the cast’s solid realization of a blistering script. In the performance I saw, paper coffee cups tumbled from a wall-bound café table in one scene, as they apparently had no liquid in them; surely props will rectify that situation. The Dallas Theater Center Production of The Shape of Things shapes up pretty nicely. It runs in repertory through May 23 with Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty (opening at later dates) in the Wyly’s 103 seat Studio Theatre.
For tickets: call 214-880-0202, or visit http://www.dallastheatercenter.org