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The Shape of Things

pantsguys Productions & atyp Under the Wharf present THE SHAPE OF THINGS by Neil Labute at atyp, Wharf 4.

THE SHAPE OF THINGS by Neil Labute, I have seen, maybe, in three other productions in Sydney. Like Patrick Marber’s CLOSER, it seems to have an attraction for young actors and directors, a generational cultural resonance, that they want to have the opportunity to explore. Or, is it simpler, economic pragmatics: a small cast of young actors with roles they can connect to easily! I asked some of the pantsguys Production team why this Labute again and not one of his other non-performed plays for Sydney? “It is a school text”, was the reply. A reasonable and strategic answer, especially if it does build their coffers, by having a needy paying audience who will come along, so that they can do other more adventuresome work – even if it were another Labute that we haven’t yet seen: SOME GIRL(S) (2005), REASONS TO BE PRETTY (2008) or the latest, IN A FOREST, DARK AND DEEP (2011). This new company’s first production being another Labute play: AUTOBAHN (2003). Aiming to be the Sydney Labute Company? You could do worse.

This production directed by Sam Haft is fairly engaging. I, despite my familiarity with the play was once again arrested and provoked. The essential argument as to what are the moral boundaries of art for its creators and creations? What are those responsibilities? When is art, art? When is it not? was explored anew on my bus ride home with my guest. Is the central protagonist of the artist more reprehensible because it is woman? MMMM? Many other bones of contention, as well, were aired.

A nerdy young man, Adam (Tim Reuben) studying literature at a small provincial university/college comes across a young artist about to commit an act of vandalism in a museum gallery with a can of spray paint, Evelyn (Rebecca Martin), who is in her final year of graduate study preparing an “installation thingy” for her thesis exams. Unbeknownst to Adam, he becomes the subject of her art project and during, what he believes to be a courtship and love affair, has things about himself re-shaped. He shifts from the nerd into what the magazines, that we all read, have qualified as a more desirable figure. Adam’s friends, Jenny (Cat Dibley) and Phillip (Graeme McRae) take note and are also changed and challenged by his “Gregor Samsa” metamorphosis.

It is an insidiously creepy play. It is discomforting. It is challenging. It may be as Mr Haft asserts,” a modern American classic”. Certainly, despite my familiarity, it still resonated provocatively.

Made up of two acts of short scenes, the puzzlement of the controlling behaviour of Evelyn and the supine behaviour of Adam becomes a fascination and the final two scenes one of utter moral dilemma and horror. This is still so, for me, even knowing the play and not been able to be surprised by it, as some of the audience were.

The text then is cleverly wrought and the acting and direction of this production, despite a clumsy and a time consuming scene changing set design (Tom Petty) is tight and mostly convincing. I thought the actors were believable as impersonators of the textual demands, but I was not completely persuaded that these characters had a life when not on the stage in front of us. The back story of each of these people a little thin, their motivations relatively superficial or not presented. It sometimes felt like talking arguments rather than life forces with real human feelings. The character of Jenny the exception, which simply threw the others characters up in contrast. The motivations of this Evelyn are a mystery, a shadow of inconclusiveness. The psychology of Phillip lacked depth. Adam, a little too earnest, and considering his course of study, and the number of literary and film culture references, a little too naive for too long?

While debating this play by Labute with an artist friend I was told that the Evelyn character has a famous true-life model. A quick perusal of her Wikipedia listing suggested to me that Mr Labute knows of her, and with dramatic licence of course, has not only for this play, but, for the premise of others, SOMEGIRL(S) , for instance, created other literary debates. The fact that Evelyn may be really out there, underlines my fear and sometimes loathing of going into the MCA and its international equivalents.

A play and production at atyp worth knowing for further fetid worries. Good theatre.