On stage, as in real life, "things aren't always what they seem". So it is at The Cloverdale Playhouse's provocative production of Neil LaBute's 2001 The Shape of Things, in Sarah Kay's crafty debut as a director.
Performed on J. Scott Grinstead's inventive set with its many moveable parts [a now signature component of his designs], it is an efficient intermissionless 90-minute production.
LaBute's tersely colloquial language and episodic structure afford glimpses into the public and private lives of the play's four characters, while also contesting the nature of art, the moral responsibilities of the artist, and an analysis of what some people are willing to do for those they love. And the opening night audience was conscripted into these themes so that conversations and debates continued after the performance ended...a measure of this production's success.
In it, Evelyn [Dominique Taylor] is a self-assured graduate student Art major working on her thesis project and caught in an attempt to deface a piece of sculpture by Adam [Graham Butler], a nerdy undergraduate English major and a part-time museum guard. There seems to be some sort of mutual attraction between them that grows more intimate over time as she encourages subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Adam's behavior and appearance that result in his willing participation and gradually developing self-confidence.
Adam introduces Evelyn to his outgoing best friend Philip [Hunter Stewart] and his more demure fiancé Jenny [Dawson McLean], whose eccentric wedding plans provoke some disagreements between the couples.
The gifted ensemble creates nuanced characterizations with subtle changes over the breadth of the play's numerous scenes, as their discussions about what comprises "art" intertwine with each one's perceptions of their own accountability to themselves and others, and whether or not they are obligated to say and do what is right.
Mr. Stewart starts as a good old boy, but has deeper feelings and ideas. Ms. McLean's sensitive portrayal of Jenny veils a more assertive nature. Mr. Butler's persona as Adam undergoes so many changes in convincing and heartbreaking measures. And all their relationships with Evelyn hinge on her ability to distance herself from them while simultaneously controlling every moment. -- In short, we feel for them and the circumstances they are compelled to face.
As much as Ms. Taylor's Evelyn has the capacity to get the others to reveal their most intimate beliefs and behaviors and manipulates their actions and various relationships, she herself remains a cipher, and even says "It's hard to read me" when she regularly fends off any attempt to get her to divulge specific information about her background or purposes until the end.
While the script provides many hints as to its devastating ending, most in the Playhouse audience were caught off-guard by its revelations, leaving them to address the themes of The Shape of Things in their own lives.