Lacking in venom, ‘Shape of Things’ misses the mark

Jimmy Grzelak '13 and Caroline O'Connell performed the roles of Adam and Evelyn in 'The Shape of Things' this past weekend.
Jimmy Grzelak ’13 and Caroline O’Connell performed the roles of Adam and Evelyn in ’The Shape of Things’ this past weekend.

In the world of Neil LaBute, the playwright behind this past weekend’s The Shape of Things, every theatrical machination is arranged to culminate in a shocking revelation on the subject of human behavior. From In the Company of Men (1997) to Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), LaBute’s characters interact as if chained to the restrictions of their individual archetypes: the destructively power-hungry male, the deviously manipulative female, the grad-school art student, the bro. And while the resulting intellectualism and emotional disconnect serve as real-life metaphors in the scripted lexicon of the likes of Mamet, with LaBute it builds to a grandiose gesture that says nothing more than that humans, both men and women, are quite capable of terrible things. A revelation, indeed, and one that in the end fell somewhat flat in the Cap & Bells production of The Shape of Things this weekend at the ’62 Center’s CenterStage.

Despite this play’s usual didactic overtones and a dialogue that is Friends-like in its unnaturally quick-witted delivery, this Shape unearthed a more relatable, humane side of LaBute. Even though the manipulating hands of the playwright puppeteer were clearly still in motion, the show extended a brave effort on the part of both director Michelle Noyer-Granacki ’11 and each of the four actors to undercut the intended savagery and instead emphasize the accompanying questions of art and cultural ethics. But while the attempt holds merit, there comes a point when a cohesive vision is necessary – a cohesion this Shape never quite reaches. LaBute’s script is brutal and harsh, whereas this production, from its between-scene songs from The Killers to the subtly emotional performances, tried to take the same themes and make them less cruel, more relatable. The attempt wasn’t consistent, however, and I left wondering whether I should focus on my sympathy for the characters involved or wither from the play’s inherent, unnerving insinuations.

The play unfolds as pudgy, unremarkable Adam (Jimmy Grzelak ’13), an English student who works as a security guard at the college art museum, encounters Evelyn (Caroline O’Connell ’11), a seductive and controlling artist, as she attempts to reveal “the truth” by spray-painting a cock on a sculpture’s crotch that the museum has covered with a fig leaf. Despite Adam’s obvious awkwardness, Evelyn tells him he’s cute, spray paints her number on the inside of his jacket, and after they begin dating, sets about reshaping his physical appearance to better fit society’s stereotype of an acceptable male. In Evelyn’s name, Adam undergoes a haircut, wardrobe update, tattoo and even a nose job, all to the amazement of his best friend, the domineering alpha male Phil (Chris Hikel ’13), and Phil’s good-girl fiancée, Jenny (Christina Adelakun ’13). The play’s eventual climax, which takes place during Evelyn’s graduate performance-art thesis, provides a culminating soundboard for LaBute to orchestrate an attack on society’s obsession with the surface, or “shape,” of things.

Sensing an allusion? Shape is full of them. But the inevitable relation to Adam and Eve provides a crux for the play’s moral consensus: In Genesis, Adam and Eve begin wearing fig leaves after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Here, Evelyn dislikes fig leaves because they cover up what’s real, but her final uncovering of “truth,” which begins with her initial act of graffiti, doesn’t occur until the revealing of her thesis – at which point she has successfully tempted and manipulated her Adam in the name of contemporary art.

To the cast’s credit, the nuanced interpretations of this production’s otherwise overbearing critiques and references made for a more accessible performance. O’Connell’s turn as Evelyn, a character whose manipulative monstrosity, if played to its extremes, could completely reduce the other three characters to nothing more than provisional marionettes, was tempered by a delivery that belied more emotion than the scripted part requires. Her performance in the role of the playwright’s primary instrument successfully stepped beyond LaBute’s dictated boundaries to reveal a character of O’Connell’s own making. With an uneasy twist of her hair while being accused of deceit and an earnestness behind otherwise cruel lines – like when she offers Adam a chance to “Tell me what I did wrong” – O’Connell moved beyond the limiting parameters of the she-devil to the more human spectrums of guilt and nostalgia and eased the way for an audience member’s understanding of the finale’s guttural revelations.

Grzelak’s performance as the love-struck victim of Evelyn’s conquest was also surprisingly individualistic and earnest; this Adam was sympathy-worthy, with his quirky habits and intellectual interjections just endearing enough to fall short of the woebegone land of Woody Allen imitators.

Overwrought caricature was, however, the hallmark of Hikel’s Phil, and the character’s wild gesturing and exaggerated bro interpretations could have been trimmed to support his otherwise credible performance. His awkward body language, however, was balanced by Adelakun’s more nuanced portrayal of the thinly written Jenny.

The overall direction, when combined with a downplayed Evelyn and the resulting room for focus on the rest of the cast, altered the quickened rhythms of LaBute’s fast-paced dialogue to a slower, more realistic exchange. The scenes, which often incorporated the actors in alternations of two, were focused downstage, and the lighting (designed both by Noyer-Granacki and Stage Manager Lauren Miller ’12) during Evelyn’s climactic thesis presentation spotlighted both actors and audience as if they were active participants in the production (which, according to LaBute’s insinuated critique of the masses in modern culture, they are).
The sparsity of set design, however, from the simple barrier rope and sculpture pedestal in the opening scene to the occasional couch or coffee table, still seemed to support the playwright’s abstract ideals: The minimal scenery pushed the actors further into LaBute’s realm of Grand Archetypes and even Grander Themes by calling up an abstract representation of reality rather than the real thing. And while the lack in itself, which might have been directed as much by budget constraints as by conscious choice, did not detract from the immediate experience, it represents one of the fundamental disparities between this production and the play’s intentions. The successes of the cast’s attempts at humanizing The Shape of Things achieved a more bearable production of LaBute’s dramatic charges, but isn’t the show’s intention to dig into the skin of our culture and reveal its ugly, rawhide immoralities? As the final lights fell, I found myself sympathizing with Evelyn for bearing the burden of having to hold the mirror into our own society; the play’s intended razor edge was dulled by the very fact that I was able to understand their scripted caricatures as human. An understandable take, but a faulted one nonetheless.