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Chicago by John Olson

Cock
Profiles Theatre


Eleni Pappageorge, Christopher Sheard, Jake Szczepaniak, Larry Neumann, Jr.
The major daily papers here have shied away from printing this play's title in their review headlines, but for those who haven't seen or read of earlier productions in London and New York, Mike Bartlett's play is not what you'd expect. It does concern sexuality and sexual identity, but it's more about emotion than sex and, despite the short, harsh-sounding when said aloud title, it's funny and ultimately quite touching. But more than anything, the reason it isn't what one would expect is because it doesn't fit into traditional boxes of theatrical genres. The story concerns a young man (Christopher Sheard), simply named John, who is in a long-term relationship with another man (Jake Szczepaniak) but is considering leaving him for a romantic relationship with a woman (Eleni Pappageorge). John is paralyzed with indecision. He loves his lover, particularly the sex, but to his surprise, he finds the sex with the woman enjoyable, too. And she's a whole lot nicer to be around. John asks himself if he'll be happy forsaking sex with guys, but also wonders if he doesn't commit to this woman if he'll be losing the chance for a more traditionally accepted lifestyle. Why, he wonders, is it necessary to choose a "team" as well as choosing a partner?

Appropriately enough for a play that challenges the idea of strict categories of sexual orientation, Cock doesn't fit neatly into any particular genre of drama. The action opens on a spirited argument between John and his lover (simply called "M" in the cast list and not addressed by name in the script). The dialogue and arguments in the first several scenes of the 80-minute intermissionless play are plausible and realistic enough, but they are played in a cock fighting arena rather than the London flat suggested by the script. These scenes depict loud verbal fights between the two men—directed at breakneck speed by Darrell W. Cox, with the men circling each other and even posing as a fighting rooster might—and with the scenes separated by the ringing of a bell. Partly, it's realism, but it's heightened realism; and in the symbolic setting and movement, it's as surreal as it's real.

Though the characters are given generic names (the woman is "W" and a fourth character, the gay lover's father, is "F"), again Bartlett surprises. Though he may be telling us through use of these symbolic non-names the characters are meant as points in some geometric diagram, he's actually written them as fully specific people. John (a name which not too long ago was as generic a man's name as "M") is confused because he's so caring. The emotions he feels for both M and W and real. He loves them both and is concerned about their feelings and well-being. According to the script, John is younger than M (though the actors here read as roughly the same age) and feels a little inferior or vulnerable to his older lover. Sheard shows us John's uncertainty clearly but is never tiresome or annoying and our empathy stays as much with him as all the characters. Szczepaniak's M is a force-of-nature—a gay man with a diva complex who perceives he has been done wrong. While that description may evoke a certain gay stereotype, Szczepaniak only uses it as a starting point. While his character is mannered and flamboyant in familiar ways, he's also strong, loud and, surprisingly, the manlier of the two. It's his energy that drives the play's action.

Eleni Pappageorge creates a full-bodied woman of W. In her late twenties, she's already survived a brief, unsuccessful marriage and has thus been "around the block." She knows the risk she's taking with such a "bi-curious" (in a sense directionally opposite from how that term is usually meant) man, and is willing to give John some slack while he ponders his options—up to a point. Partly toughened by her previous bad luck in love and partly still vulnerable, we don't see her as a home wrecker, but as a woman who fell in love with a particular guy and who wants to give the relationship a chance. Finally, there's the father, F, a working–class Brit as rough around the edges as his son is articulate and mannered. F is the opposite of what one might expect of such a bloke. He's completely supportive and protective of his gay son, wanting a secure and committed relationship for him with a loving male partner. F is played warmly and comically by the venerable Chicago character actor Larry Neumann, Jr.

Katie-Bell Springman's set might even be called the opposite of a set, in that it's the audience who is actually on set rather than the actors. She's created a cockfighting arena of wooden bleachers that fills the two-story space of Profiles' Mainstage storefront theater. The audience surrounds the actors, who perform in the ring, with sawdust on the floor but no set pieces or props.

Profiles in general and Cox in particular (both as actor and director) are known for their facility with realism and naturalism. Cox uses his skill in a new way by heightening the reality, taking realistic situations and conversations but upping the volume and intensity to suit the play's central concept. Cock is a great piece for this company and an occasion to take what they do well and, if another avian analogy can be forgiven, spread their wings a little.

Cock will play the Profiles Theatre Mainstage, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, through May 27, 2014. For ticket information visit www.profilestheatre.org or call 773-549-1815.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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