Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Neil La Bute's The Shape of Things Is Not Your Usual Romantic Theater
Also see Richard's review of La Boheme
The Aurora Theatre has opened its 11th season with the fresh and thought- provoking The Shape of Things by fast rising playwright Neil LaBute. The New Yorker has called LaBute "an original voice - the best playwright to emerge in the past decade - a genius." After watching this two hour no intermission drama, I am inclined to agree with that statement. Mr. LaBute has a simplistic writing style that I like very much.
The Shape of Things had its premiere at London's Almeida Theatre where it was a smashing success. The author/director moved the play to the Promenade Theatre in New York where it enjoyed a three month run. In February of this year, the play was filmed with the original four member cast of Paul Rudd, Rachel Weiss, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller. It is scheduled for release for Focus Films (a subsidiary of Universal Pictures) the first of next year.
The Shape of Things deals with the relationships of four college students. At the beginning of the play, Adam (Craig Marker) is a timid student who is holding down two unskilled jobs to help pay for his tuition at a small Midwestern college. One of the jobs is a security guard for the college's art gallery. He is overweight, looks like a first class nerd in unkempt clothes, oversized glasses and messy hair. You can see no woman is going to fall for this guy. He is also shy and very unsure of himself. Adam meets Evelyn (Stephanie Gularte), a positive art student who is up to no good in this gallery. However, as the old adage says, opposites attract. They soon become a couple, and Evelyn gives Adam a complete makeover. He suddenly loses weight, changes his hair style to a more modern look, switches to contact lenses, buys new clothes and even gets a nose job. You might say he is the equivalent of Liza Doolittle in Pygmalion.
Joining this couple are Adam's friends Jenny (Arwen Anderson), who is a female equivalent of the old Adam, and Phillip (Danny Wolohan), Adam's ex-roommate who is something of a loud mouth. Jenny and Phillip are planning an "underwater wedding."
This is no ordinary two hour romantic comedy since Mr. LaBute is not a writer of sugary plots. Remember, this is the man who wrote the screenplays to In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. The two hour production contains dazzling twists and thought-provoking turns to keep you on the edge of your seat. Many will feel uncomfortable watching the interactions of the four characters, especially if they have a romantic view of relationships.
Shape is a play that asks the questions, "How far would you go for love?", "What would you be willing to change?" and "What price might you pay?" LaBute examines these ideas by peeling back the skin of the two modern relationships and revealing the truth that lies just beneath the surface. This is a story rich in texture; the dialogue is skillfully crafted and it serves the purpose effectively. We have been asked not to disclose the final 15 minutes of the play, which is a shocker. I did not see it coming.
Four amazing actors inhabit this play. Craig Marker as Adam is someone to watch in the future. He undergoes the greatest transformation and he nails the role exquisitely. The actor has a moment alone near the end of the play that is both beautiful to watch and very difficult to observe. It is an incredible performance.
Stephanie Gularte is also wonderful as Evelyn. She is the Professor Higgins for Adam's transformation, and she is tart and influential. Gularte is brilliantly believable, balancing her focus and self confidence with just enough coquettishness to be draw us into her little world.
Arwen Anderson as Jenny is a delight, and her performance is filled with sincerity. Danny Wolohan is excellent as a boor and yet you see he clearly cares about where Adam is going with the relationship with Evelyn. All four are fearless and give elastic performances.
Tom Ross has chosen to run the two hour show without intermission and this is to the audience's advantage. A break would ruin the buildup at the end. His direction works very nicely. The set design by Kate Boyd is excellent and fascinating; groups of white boxes are moved around with great precision by the production assistants. Location changes are heralded by titles overhead and explosive music to open each scene. Jim Cave's lighting is right on the mark.
The Shape of Things is a brilliant start to the Aurora's 11th season. It played thru October 20 at their new theater located at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. Their next production is Michael Frayn Alarms and Excursions.