Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cock: Attention Must Be Paid to Mike Bartlett's Cock


Let's get the double entendres out of the way.  I loved Cock top to bottom. Cock was deep, thrilling, and satisfying.  Cock made me want to squeal with delight.  I cannot get enough of Mike Bartlett's Cock.  I loved it so much, I went back for more Cock.*  A Cock in the hand is worth two in the bush...wait no I think maybe that's a single entendre.

Ok.  We good.  Got that out of our system.  Because I'm not sure I can hold back my true adoration for Mike Bartlett's Cock for much longer. 

Mike Bartlett's play is a language ballet.  No, well...maybe a language ballet blended with a language hootenanny.  At times, it is elegant, structured, restrained and beautiful.  Yet, it is also full of wild and unruly passion, energy and exuberance.  It is deeply funny, richly felt but somehow also raw and immediate.  All these contradictions somehow work together to form a thoughtful exploration of relationships, love, and our humanity.

With the audience seated around the actors in an arena (bullfighting, cockfighting, or boxing--take your pick) the characters come out fighting.  I found boxing to be the best metaphor, because of the punch, jab, and bounce of the verbal battle at hand.  Moreover, these are purely human fights.  Even if figurative blood is shed, guts ripped out, and entrails exposed, the creature doing the harm is another human.  It seems to elevate the emotional carnage knowing this is what people who love each other do to each other and not looking at it through an animalistic gloss.

Photo Courtesy of the Production
Cock is the story of John (Cory Michael Smith) a gay man living with his partner of ten years M (Jason Butler Harner).  John thinks their relationship is soon to end and they are not honestly facing it, so John leaves M.  While they are broken up John meets W (Amanda Quaid).  He sleeps with her and falls in love with her.  But John returns to M and their relationship but admits to M what has happened with W.  But John cannot keep away from W.  M demands that John make a choice between M or W.**  W comes to dinner with M and John.  John is confronted with the two people he loves, both hoping he has made a choice in their favor.  

Although much time in the play is dedicated to people asking John "What are you," it is far too simplistic to dismiss this as a work of the struggles of sexuality and labels.  Bartlett's skill here is that sexuality is the vehicle for a deeper discussion of "Who are you."  The play asks penetrating questions of who we are when we are alone and how we see ourselves, our lives, our futures and how that changes with the people we are in relationships with. 

Using a similar "smash-cut" device that was employed by Dan LeFranc in The Big Meal, scenes end abruptly.  Here, time leaps forward and backward, but unlike The Big Meal, scenes begin and end with the ring of a bell (thus again emphasizing the pugilistic nature of arguments).  But with each scene, and each exchange, I felt like these characters became more fully drawn.  I was invested in their relationships from the start and was transfixed by their dilemma as the play went on.  No one and no argument was easily dismissed. 

Photo Courtesy of the Production
The arena staging (which is called for in the play and not a director's choice) makes for an unusual level of intimacy.  It is not just an intimate topic or just that the actors are feet away from the audience.  There is an unexpected shared intimacy because the audience is lit for the entire performance.  You cannot help but watch the audience around you react.  You see people holding hands, crossing arms, leaning in, recoiling away, covering their faces with their hands.  Rather than be distracting I found this to be part and parcel of the play's experience.  Communal reflection forces you to consider your own reactions.

For all the theatrical elements, the true greatness here is the drama at the core of the play.  Despite hilarious dialogue and a brilliant comedic overlay, there is a heartbreaking undercurrent to this work.  Even when the comedy rises to the level of farce (and it does at the dinner party), the consequences are so brutal, real, and grounded in human truth that the audience's laughter is covering for fear, sadness, and the knowing loss that someone, possibly everyone will be hurt by the outcome of John's dilemma.

I love any play that shows me pieces of myself in the work and results in a richer understanding of our collective humanity.  It's rare and worth celebrating. 

Certainly the text is key to the success of this play but the cast does a phenomenal job to serve that text.  The American cast puts on fine British accents.  Jason Butler Harner as M is priggish, caustic, and playful.  He covers his pain and insecurities with sarcasm (he gets some of the best lines).  He manages to be both a bully and a victim.  Harner makes all aspects of this funny and real.  I last saw Harner in an entirely dramatic role in Through a Glass Darkly.  I plan on keeping an eye out for whatever work he does in the future.  He's incredibly talented.  Smith, as John, has the challenge of selling his character's indecision.  Smith strikes frozen poses and discovers ways to communicate this avoidance artfully.  In many ways his character is frustrating, but Smith deserves credit for finding the humanity and sympathy in John.  Smith makes John's agony over these two people vivid and makes it impossible for the audience to dismiss his struggle too easily.  I recently saw Quaid in Galileo (which I did not fancy) but here she ends up between adorable and intensely direct and it's great. 

James MacDonald directed this production (he was also the director of the London production of Cock at the Royal Court Theatre in 2009).  I still have not wholly forgiven him for his dreadful production of King Lear last year (best performance by an Iron Curtain ever!), but Cock helps.  The actors circle each other, barely touch, and resist touching.  There are powerful moments where the actors do not physically act out what they say they are doing (removing a shirt, holding hands). This restraint in the literal makes you acutely aware of the performances and the writing.  The deft and gentle direction was welcome and served the play well.

Despite being only 31, Mike Bartlett has had a number of plays staged in London over the past few years (currently he has a production of his adaptation of Chariots of Fire headed to the West End).  This is the first of his plays to arrive in New York.  It's an audacious beginning and leaves me wanting more. 

Cock plays at the Duke on 42nd Street.

*I received complementary tickets to the show.

**When asked what the M and W stood for by my guest, I said Menis and Wagina.  Clearly the most obvious possibilities.  I stand by those names.

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