"I need some straightening out," says John. He's torn between a man and a woman, identified only as M and W. He's lived with the needy, high-strung M for seven years and, after he walks out, John takes up with the warm and open W. This surprises John; he even tells his new love, "I've never really found women attractive." But John finds the safety and familiarity of his gay life hard to give up, leading to a confrontation between all three at a tense dinner party. M and W look to John for a decision, but John finds it nearly impossible to make a decision about anything, and that's where much of the drama comes from. John can't decide who he should be with until he decides who he is and who he wants to be.
Block stages Cock on a tiny, hexagon-shaped stage surrounded by two rows of seats, with audience members only a few feet away from the actors. It's meant to evoke a cockfight ring, and while there's no violence in Cock, things get pretty heated as the actors get in each others' faces. The scenes are short and snappy; the characters say what they need to say bluntly, then move on. The conflict is all verbalthere's no physical contact between the actors. (Even sex scenes are performed fully clothed, without the actors touching; the eroticism is suggested rather than shown.) Colin McIlvaine's set is sparkling, but Bartlett's words bring up some emotions that are anything but tidy. And, while the play's cycle of arguments is a bit repetitive, in Block's hands it never seems boring.
As John, Wes Haskell wears a hangdog expression that shows his displeasure at having to hurt others, while John Jarboe is smiling and smarmy as M. But it's Mary Tuomanen's W who makes the strongest impression; her direct intensity and focus ground the play in reality. (She also does the most convincing English accent of the lot.) Ben Lovell offers good support late in the play as a fourth character who tries to influence John's choice.
Cock has been extended through November 17, 2013, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 South 13th Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 - $40 ($10 - $15 for students), and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-218-4022 or online at www.TheatreExile.org.
It's about a couple of travelers who take lodging at a country house, thinking that it's an inn; the master of the house, Mr. Hardcastle, is befuddled and outraged at the condescending demands his guests make of him. One of the travelers, Charles Marlow, is so shy that he stammers and stares at the floor whenever an eligible woman is nearbybut if that woman is of a lower social class, Marlow turns into a smooth-talking enchanter. Noticing the change, Hardcastle's daughter Kate poses as a maid in order to woo, or "conquer," Marlow.
There's more to the plot, including another romance, some missing jewels, and some dimwitted servants. She Stoops to Conquer has too many plot threads for its own good, and is sometimes undermined by cheap humor and unnecessary complications; a slapstick scene late in the second act that involves Mrs. Hardcastle being tricked by her son Tony takes way too long to set up and has a minimal payoff. But the play also sports some sharp class-based satire, endearing characters, and an enticing male/female rivalry. Director Alexander Burns' production is at its most winning when it emphasizes these features.
The costumes (by Jane Casanave) and wigs place us in eighteenth century England, but Burns' production doesn't overdo the period effects. The actors sport American accents, and the Hardcastles' house "that for all the world looks like an inn" is suggested by a chair and two tables. (Quintessence is performing She Stoops in repertory along with Hamlet, and the productions use the same basic setup, with both the actors and the audience on high platforms. The arrangement works better here than in Hamlet, since the set changes are less complicated and there are no hindrances to seeing all the action.)
John Preston and E. Ashley Izard hit the right notes of comic outrage as Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, and Josh Carpenter's Marlow is a beguiling interloper. Rachel Brodeur's saucy turn as Kate's cousin Constance is fun to watch. But Sonja Field's Kate just isn't lively enough to be interesting. Her costume doesn't help matters; while Brodeur's bright red dress grabs one's attention, Field's drab, dark gown blends in with the background on the all-black set. Kate's half-brother Tony is supposed to be a lovable rascal, but Sean Bradley's performance makes him more annoying than adorable. And Burns' decision to have two maids played by men in drag adds a camp element that seems completely out of place. It's a desperate appeal for laughs that Burns' production indulges in too frequently; for instance, do we really need to see a man mime a groping gesture when he says the word "bosoms"? The production works better when it adopts a classier tone.
Quintessence's She Stoops to Conquer needs some tightening up, but it's still a funny, highly enjoyable production.
She Stoops to Conquer, which is being presented in repertory along with Hamlet, runs through November 24, 2013, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $15 for youth and $10 for groundlings (standing room), and are available by calling (215) 987-4450 or online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.