Heart and Soul

Three contemporary plays examine the nature of love.

Juliet took poison. John Hinckley Jr. shot the president. While most of us won’t go that far for love, we’d probably move cross-country, pass up a sought-after job opportunity, or make some kind of physical change. Three stunning new area productions pose the question of what we’d do for love, or seen another way, what love could make us do. The plays also address issues such as the true value of art, the desire for fame, and the nature of male friendship.

Of the three plays, the most shocking is The Shape of Things, a new work from Neil LaBute that makes its Bay Area debut at the Aurora under the direction of Tom Ross. LaBute is known for the controversial film In the Company of Men, which followed to the logical conclusion the behavior of two men who thought so little of female humanity that they made a game of seducing and then cruelly dumping a woman they believed weak and vulnerable. Company raised quite a hue and cry among feminists, many of whom — confusing the execrable characters with the author, or simply not interested in paying nine bucks to watch a woman be abused — boycotted the film.

The Shape of Things is the flip side of the Company coin, making the point — as a friend once so aptly if crudely put it — that “assholeism knows no gender.” Here it’s a woman preying on a man’s vulnerability for her own ends, convincing him to sacrifice things he cares about, and subtly revealing in the process (as Chad did in Company) her own deep scars.

Dweeby college student Adam meets beautiful, confident Evelyn when she comes to the museum where he works, intent on refashioning a sculpture to suit her own aesthetic. They begin a relationship that will change him forever, while leaving her more or less the same. Like House of Blue Leaves and Deep Space, Shape has a surprising conclusion that I’ve sworn not to give away, but I’ll say this: if you skipped Company and LaBute’s other films because you like happy endings, you might want to pass on this one too. But if you like theater that really makes you think, Shape will keep you up nights.

The brilliance of the work lies in the fact that LaBute, even as he offers up characters we would like to believe don’t exist, shows how they could. Much of Shape will be uncomfortable for anyone who’s fantasized about changing their partners in some way. As Evelyn and Adam’s friend Jenny talk about how Adam is evolving, Jenny muses that her fianc√© Philip is “six things short of being perfect.” We are reminded that while both men and women refashion themselves to attract and hold the sexual attention of other people, women speak of it much more freely, both when it comes to changing oneself (“Be the Hottest You!” coos Cosmo) and changing your man (“Dear Cosmo,” writes a reader, “my boyfriend’s otherwise-perfect butt has acne. How can I tactfully get him to deal with it?”) Our social structure encourages women to “improve” men, and LaBute puts that sort of thinking under a powerful microscope.

Craig Marker is painfully earnest as Adam, who doesn’t quite understand what Evelyn sees in him, but is so besotted he’s willing to overlook his misgivings. Marker has a moment alone near the end that is as beautiful as it is difficult to watch. As Evelyn, Stephanie Gularte is tart and persuasive, bright and sharp. Watching her shred Adam’s pal Philip is a guilty pleasure for anyone who’s ever disliked his or her partner’s friends. Philip (Danny Wolohan) is indeed a boor, yet he clearly cares about Adam. Unfortunately the two men are trapped in the sort of relationship where they can’t really help each other without losing face. Arwen Anderson’s Jenny turns out to be the closest thing to innocent in this batch; she’s the polar opposite of Evelyn, all uncertainty.

The set design and the way scene changes are indicated are very important elements. Kate Boyd’s set is anchored by a group of white boxes, moved around with drill-team precision by production assistants Jamie Riley and Adam Fisher, which creates the impression that the characters never quite leave the sterile confines of Adam’s museum. As in Company, location changes are heralded by titles and explosive music. It’s like watching an experiment in a lab, something unethical that nonetheless will yield a greater understanding of the human soul.

One of the secondary issues in Shape, that of class difference (notable in the conflict between erudite Evelyn and good ol’ boy Philip) is explored more fully in Alex Johnston’s Deep Space, which opens Transparent Theater’s second season. Two roommates share a flat in Dublin, Ireland, and little else. Gangly, emotional Jaco went to vocational schools and is now gainfully employed as an electrician, while cool, sarcastic Keith has a degree in art history and no job. While they’re friendly in a superficial roommate way, it quickly becomes clear that they don’t think much of each other: Keith refers pityingly to Jaco as being part of the lumpen proletariat, while in an aside Jaco mentions that he doesn’t care for Keith’s intellectual chums. The divide grows wider as the two men explore their feelings for the same woman, Fionnula.

Deep Space is a compact package filled with a lot of valuable stuff. A really interesting thing about this play is how we’re set up to understand Keith as the intellectual, and so perhaps the one with a more enlightened view of women and gender roles, but it soon becomes clear that with him, it’s all book larnin’. Jaco, who proves to be the more compassionate of the two by a long shot, has a more instinctive grasp of how to behave with women — indeed, with people in general. While Keith sits at home smoking and fretting over his shortcomings, Jaco is out in the world, taking risks and generally succeeding. And one of the risks he’s prepared to take is being truthful with Fionnula. As Jaco (Jason Frazier, who gets to show a lot more of his stuff here than he did as Jason in Shotgun’s recent Medea) and Fionnula become an item, Keith (Drew Khalouf, new to East Bay theater, and notable for his remarkably expressive face) sulks and smolders, perpetuating small but meaningful acts of aggression.

Ryan Montgomery, who played Jimmy in last season’s knockout Brave Brood, came back to Transparent to direct this show, and he’s made some evocative choices. Fionnula herself is present only as snatches of sound and a scarf; were she present, things would get tangled up in how the two roommates represent themselves as men. There is a lot of silence in this staging — a long interlude where Keith, sitting almost perfectly still, muses on how to handle his feelings is as effective as would be a lengthy monologue.

Playwright Johnston also tackles the tricky question of rape (Fionnula has been molested in the past) in a way certain to make audiences question their assumptions about how and why rape happens, and what kind of people commit the act. Nothing becomes clear except that there is the law, and then there are people’s hearts. Things happen that spelled out on paper seem despicable but may not have that much impact, while seeming kindnesses can go sour and become vile. Johnston’s ending is satisfying without being false. This production is a powerful start to Transparent’s new season.

Rape also comes up in The House of Blue Leaves, the funniest of the three. Leaves is full of many other unfunny things — mental illness, assassination, and infidelity, just for starters — which playwright John Guare has somehow managed to twist and poke into hilarity. House mingles humor with pathos, and slapstick with the sadness of a family falling apart. Although superficially it speaks to what people will do for love, ultimately it’s more about the desire to become famous (or infamous, whichever works), and the way people will manipulate each other to achieve that end. The current production at the Berkeley Rep is oddly wonderful — the acting is great, the set sloppily intimate, the logical premise drawn out to illogical extremes.

Artie works at the Central Park Zoo, but dreams of being an award-winning composer for big Hollywood films. It’s a dream that seems impossible, tied as he is to a wife with serious mental problems — that is, until he meets freewheeling Bunny Flingus, whose love makes him feel like he has a shot at the big time. But does she really love him, or does she love where she thinks his talent can take her? And what about pathetic Bananas, Artie’s wife? She’s not as crazy as everyone thinks; she’s tuned in enough to know what’s going on and to be in pain as a result. To make things more complicated, the Pope is coming to New York to speak out against the war in Vietnam. While most of the characters expect the Pope will fix their lives (Artie brings his music along to be blessed, for instance), Artie and Bananas’ son Ronnie has gone AWOL with the express intention of blowing up the Pope so he can be famous. Throw in a pack of stray nuns, a supremely self-centered movie director and his girlfriend, an MP, and a guy with a straitjacket, and you have one raucous winter’s day in Queens.

Rebecca Wisocky, who was so elegant and rather stiff in last year’s 36 Views, is the real surprise of this show. Made up to look possessed and costumed in layers of dumpy nightgowns, Wisocky takes on Bananas absolutely, whether she’s acting like a dog begging for scraps or trying to convince family friend Billy Einhorn to save her from being institutionalized. “You see,” she pleads, “they give me pills so I won’t feel anything. Now I don’t mind not feeling anything, so long as I can remember feeling,” revealing both tremendous pain and the fact that she’s not as out of it as Bunny would have everyone think she is. Jarion Monroe, who turned so convincingly from a prissy man into a rhinoceros last season, is something else again as conflicted, deluded Artie. “I miss you so much sometimes,” he says longingly to Bananas, and then he’s off cooing at Bunny (Jeri Lynn Cohen, stepping in at the last minute with great aplomb and accent to match) or lustily banging out his awful tunes on the piano. Barbara Damashek, who also directed Rhinoceros last season, clearly had a good time assembling this rarely-seen-in-the-Bay-Area show, and it’s a pleasure audiences can share, while still having things to talk about on the way home.

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