07 June 2014

'Cock'


I paid a visit to my mother in Bethesda, Maryland, in May and while I was there she and her theater companion had seats for a performance at Studio Theatre in the District, a theater I’ve attended and written about on a number of occasions (“Venus in Fur (Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C.),” 11 July 2011; “Torch Song Trilogy,” 5 October 2013; “That Hopey Changey Thing,” 15 December 2013).  I think it’s one of the city’s best troupes and the acting there is always superior, even if I occasionally haven’t cared for the choice of material.  This production was Cock, a British play by Mike Bartlett, which was reviewed in the Washington Post just a few days after I arrived in town and Peter Marks gave it an unqualified rave.  We  saw the matinee performance on Saturday, 31 May, in the little Milton Theatre at Studio’s Logan Circle home on 14th Street, N.W.  The production, which opened on 18 May after starting previews on the 14th, is part of Studio Theatre’s New British Invasion Festival; the production is scheduled to close on 22 June. 

Cock, whose title refers simultaneously (or serially, perhaps) to the male sex organ, the British colloquialism for “someone who can’t get anything right,” and cockfighting as a metaphor for the combative scenes of Bartlett’s play, d├ębuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009.  It played at the Duke Theatre in New York City in 2012 (in a presentation, whose title was The Cockfight Play for advertising and PC purposes—and in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journalstaged by the London director, James Macdonald, and co-produced by the Royal Court) and has been produced in Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Key West, Coral Gables, Toronto, Melbourne, and Bangalore, among other locales.  The plot’s the complex story of John, who’s in a several-year relationship with a man, called simply M, yet suddenly finds himself attracted and maybe in love with a woman, W.  In a world newly rife with choices, John has to confront his at a climactic (if you will) dinner cooked by M who’s invited not only W but his father, F.  Saying Cock concerns “categorisations,” the playwright has acknowledged, “It's about sex and sexuality, fighting, falling in love, and getting things wrong.”  In the words of Variety’s London reviewer, David Benedict, Cock “is like watching [Noel Coward’s] Private Lives on fast-forward, albeit . . . with saltier language.”

Bartlett, 33, is from Oxford and has been writing plays for the Royal Court since 2007 (My Child), where he’s been a member of the prestigious Young Writers.  He’d previously written Comfort for the Old Vic’s New Voices 24 Hour Plays in 2005 and his radio play Not Talking was broadcast by the BBC in 2007; Bartlett’s also written for television (The Town, a 2012 crime series on ITV1).  Cock won the 2010 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement In An Affiliate Theatre and his 2013 play Bull received the National Theatre Award for Best New Play; he’s won a passel of other awards and honors in his short career already.  Bartlett was Writer-In-Residence at the National Theatre in 2011 and his most recent work includes the 2014 plays An Intervention and King Charles III, a “future history play” in verse which speculates on the reign of the current Prince of Wales. 

Bartlett says he became interested in theater at 16 when he saw Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (Royal Court Upstairs, 1996), remarking that it was “the first time I’d seen a play by a writer that wasn’t dead, or wasn’t much older.”  The Studio program states, “Much of his early work is stripped of almost all theatrical trappings—set, costumes, and props—and leans on the spectacle and surprise of argument, of the brutality of competition played out linguistically among his characters.”   On the website WhatsOnStage.com British reviewer Michael Coveney, writing about My Child in 2007, said, “What I like about Bartlett’s play is its simplicity and starkness, its realization that to make good theatre you can pare right down to basics and raw emotions, and honest dissections of relationships, like you can lacerate them.”  Stressing the “theatricality of the contemporary world,” Bartlett’s work “strips theatre of its preciousness.”  “Theatre has to appeal to people who do jobs and have lives,” says Bartlett.  Instead of writing plays “thinking about other plays,” he insists the writer should “look out the window and say, my play is about that—whatever the world is, that’s what I’m after.”

With a reputation for finding dramatic forms to address our changing reality, evident in Cock, Bartlett’s plays often deal with the symbols of modern life: widescreen TV’s, tablets, iPhones (not so evident in Cock).  Characters Tweet, text, and check social media; they go clubbing or grab a coffee at Starbucks.  But Bartlett has more on his mind than seeding his scripts with the latest computer products and pastimes.  He says he wants “to find a theatre that can reflect that [computerized] landscape . . . forms that represent what it feels like to live now.”  The incipient dramatist thought, “I don’t understand why all plays aren’t like this.  Why are so many plays set in the past?”  His earliest experiments with playwriting blended “modernity with tradition.” 

His work is also political, but not polemical, confronting such topics as the British involvement in Iraq, the baby boomer generation, corporate corruption, and complacency over climate change.  Along with contemporary subjects and themes, Bartlett is considered an innovator with form as well, sometimes borrowing techniques from TV and film.  The press consistently labels him “one of Britain['s] hottest young playwrights,” “one of the most exciting new talents to emerge in recent times,” “one of the UK's most exciting and inventive young writers,” and other similar encomiums.  Even David Muse, Studio’s artistic director and the production’s stage director, dubbed the writer “Britain’s most exciting young contemporary playwright.”  His plays, however, except for Cock and 2008’s Contractions, which was produced in 2013 by Studio (which also presented a reading of Bartlett’s 2013 Bull on 2 June), don’t seem to have had wide exposure in the U.S.  (At any rate, I was unfamiliar with Bartlett’s name or his work before this presentation.) 

Cock is a peculiar play dramaturgically, which I gather is a trademark of Bartlett’s writing.  It could be a radio script (which we’ve seen the dramatist writes)—you could easily close your eyes and get a pretty full experience of the play.  Stripped, as the program notes of most of the playwright’s work, of “theatrical trappings,” there are no props or set pieces (there is a set, which I’ll get to presently), and Alex Jaeger’s costuming is appropriate but hardly revealing.  (Though the play covers several weeks of the lives of John, M, and W, they never change clothes, which is in line theatrically with the propless staging.)  Colin K Bills’s lighting is stark and monochromatic—bright white spotlights, with a huge, square fluorescent fixture illuminating the central playing area with its cold, characterless light which all black out between scenes but otherwise never change intensity.  (There’s enough light in the house to read the program or check your watch if you like.)  It’s the illumination of a sports arena—think night baseball or football for an appropriate image—not the emotionally charged atmosphere of a dramatic reenactment of lives in turmoil; there are no shadows.  None of this would be sorely missed in a radio performance; the only true deficit would be the actors’ appearances, especially their facial expressions.  You could probably manage without that, but it would be a loss.

The play’s setting is a dirt-covered ring, which I presume is meant to resemble a cockfighting ring.  (I wouldn’t know: I’ve never seen a real one.)  The lighting is also part of this image.  The Milton’s small amphitheater stage, which is circular anyway, is backed by a raw-plywood arc with two doorways cut into it and matching wooden benches built in all along its length.  When a character is “off” (that is, say, in another room but still present), the actor may take a seat on the bench.  Occasionally, they take swigs of bottled water like fighters or wrestlers between rounds (and, I’d bet, because the actors need to wet their whistles in this performance that keeps everyone talking for 95 minutes straight).  Everything—the wood and the dirt—is monochromatic.  (The floor surrounding the dirt ring is white, but that’s no-man’s land: it’s not part of the play’s reality.)  In the program, an illustration shows what looks like a bull ring, and I assume this image is also part of the environment Bartlett, Muse, and set designer Debra Booth want to evoke. 

After each scene, staged like a sort of verbal sumo-wrestling bout, a buzzer sounds (sound design is by James Bigbee Garver) and the actors change positions in the circle—sometimes switching sides completely, sometimes just shifting a foot or two one way or another, and occasionally “shaking it out,” like athletes getting ready for another round.  (As if to carry out the sumo analogy, in one early scene, M essentially backs John to the edge of the ring until John has to quickly dodge around M to avoid stepping off the circle and “losing” the round.)  Since the actors carry no props, all action of the realistic sort is imaginary.  I don’t mean mimed or indicated—it’s left up to us to “see” what the characters are doing, with occasional brief suggestions from the dialogue.  (“Can I have more wine?”  “There.”  But no one holds up a “glass” or tilts a “bottle.”  See?  Radio play.)  Even the sex is imaginary in the same vein—with suggestive sound effects from the actors, however.  No one disrobes or even goes through the motions, even when M does a strip for John.  (The kissing is real—the rest isn’t.  Neither is any violence, such as a slap.)  I found this very interesting theatrically, and it intrigues me as a technique, but it was also a little off-putting, especially in the beginning before the convention became established. 

With so little to do on stage, the actors have to work extra hard with their bodies to put some physical life into Bartlett’s slightly expressionistic dialogue.  I can tell you from experience, acting without props and business is among the hardest work an actor has to undertake on stage (right next to doing nothing at all, possible the hardest job for an actor to do well).  The set’s innate restrictiveness—what can you do in a dirt circle, after all?—means that the cast has to rely an awful lot on their faces, and the Studio cast does a marvelous job of this.  Rarely do they mug or over-articulate an expression (it did happen here and there), but all four of the actors (Ben Cole as John, Scott Parkinson as M, Liesel Allen Yaeger as W, and Bruce Dow as F—and, by the way, except for John, these designations only appear in the program, not in the dialogue) really pulled off this difficult assignment, fleshing out the characters—as much as Bartlett’s script allows them to.  I have to add that Parkinson has an extraordinarily special asset for this work: he has the most intense eyes I’ve seen on any stage recently.  They can be ordinary, no more expressive than any good actor’s, then suddenly get piercing and hard, like a hawk’s. 

As I watched the early scenes of Cock, I quickly noticed that Bartlett doesn’t actually write realistic speech.  Despite his claim to write about the world as it really is, his people don’t really speak like you and me and the folks we all know.  (Of course, neither did Tennessee Williams’s characters, Chekhov’s, Ibsen’s, Shaw’s, or Lanford Wilson’s.  It’s deceptive.)  Now, I don’t mean he sounds like Pinter or Ionesco, or Shakespeare or Marlowe.  You can be fooled for a time into thinking Bartlett’s people talk like ordinary Brits—but it won’t last for long.  (By the way, the accents slipped now and then—the dialect coach is Ashley Smith—and its region is ambiguous, but that turned out to be inconsequential.  The script could even be Americanized without harm, I think.)  But I couldn’t put my finger on what they were doing—until I finally decided to concoct my own literary style to describe what the playwright writes: expressionistic realism.  If lyric realism, what Williams wrote, is a heightened, poetic form of speech that sounds like real conversation but isn’t, then expressionistic realism is speech that seems ordinary but is more endowed with open emotion, exposed nerves than what most people utter.  Of course, this can get Bartlett’s characters into a lot of trouble—emotional honesty, no matter how elegantly expressed, is perilous.  I gather, especially if Cock is at all emblematic of Bartlett’s dramaturgy, that this is what the dramatist intends for his plays—to court danger, to test the waters of modern society, with its pitfalls and bear traps, and see how we survive, falter, cope, or founder. 

In Cock, none of the characters come out of their honesty particularly whole, no one gets what he or she wants, much less needs.  In fact, none of them ever learn what they need, let alone how to get it.  And it’s not as if they deserve to fail—no one’s venal here—it’s just not possible in Bartlett’s world for them to find happiness—or even mere satisfaction.  I guess Bartlett’s lesson (is that a terrible word?) is that in this modern world of choices and possibilities, making the right one just isn’t achievable.  It’s not just a matter that any given decision means someone gets hurt.  Every decision means everyone gets hurt—especially the chooser.  Cock starts out as a serio-comedy, with plenty of laughter (some of it embarrassed), and ends up a near tragedy: no one’s dead, but everyone’s soul is mortally wounded.

If that doesn’t daunt you, then you’re likely to like Bartlett’s play.  If it does, you should probably stay away, because Cock has a fairly painful outcome—and Bartlett offers no spoonful of sugar to help his medicine go down.  (Sorry.  I just saw Saving Mr. Banks.)  You are forewarned.

The Washington area press (I didn’t survey the London, New York, or other regional reviews) seemed fairly unanimous in its praise for Bartlett’s short play.  As I said at the outset of this report, Peter Marks pretty much raved about the play and Studio’s production in the Post.  Calling the play a “sizzling seriocomedy of straight-gay indecision,” the Post reviewer wrote, “You feel at certain knuckle-gnawing moments . . . that something is about to explode.”  The play “has the potential to propel us into the realm of the simple-minded rom-com,” Marks warned.  “But this crackling play, staged with acerbic brio at Studio Theatre by the ace director David Muse, is a far slyer work” that “falls enjoyably into line with the best drama created by other astute relationship-probers, such as Neil Labute.”  The Post writer concluded that “Muse and company bring this provocative argument to an intriguing boil.”  In the Examiner, Kyle Osborne dubbed Cock a “whip smart play” in which the lead actors are “displaying non-stop foot work that a heavyweight champ would envy.”  Osborne, however, objected that John’s “indecision will drive you crazy, mainly because Bartlett hasn’t shown us why these two smart and attractive people would put up with his bullshit.”  The Examiner review-writer acknowledged, though, that “what fun it is watching these characters throw words across the stage at each other like poisoned-tipped spears,” even as “the whole play merges into Farce” in the final scene (a characterization with which I don’t agree).  Reminding us, “You don’t have to like the characters in order to enjoy a play,” Osborne quipped that John’s indecision drove the reviewer to the point where he “was going to rush the stage and grab him by the lapels,. . . shouting, ‘Dude, just make up your f*cking mind!.’”  (That’s the Examiner’s asterisk, not mine; they used it in the play’s title, too.) 

Ian Buckwalter of Washington City Paper called Bartlett’s play “often hilarious,” the production of which at Studio is “a cockfight with M and W as preening roosters both looking to rule John’s roost.”  Buckwalter complained that John’s “paralysis is the play’s greatest hurdle, because Bartlett is trying to build an emotional narrative around a character who is unable to connect with his feelings,” making the character “maddening to watch.”  The reviewer for WCP added, however, that this is “a hurdle that Bartlett’s quick-witted style easily clears.  Even in the midst of crippling his protagonist, one can sense the playwright in the center of the ring, slyly asking, are you not entertained?”  Warning that “we need to have a firm grip on the arms of our seats, because we are in for an emotional ride,” Chuck Conconi called Cock a “tough, acerbic play” in Washington Life Magazine.  He noted the “minimalism” of both Bartlett’s writing and Muse’s direction, but also pointed out, “While mesmerizing, Bartlett’s play is painful to experience,” yet also “the kind of life-defining experience we understand and maybe even have experienced.”

On the website DC Theatre Scene, Jayne Blanchard dubbed Cock a “pugilistic, punch-drunk comedy . . . that sears you with snark while ripping your heart out.”  On the set she likens to a “Spartan arena,” Blanchard saw “three people peck and claw through this raw examination of power plays, the mystery of attraction, sexual orientation and responsibility” which is “sharpened by David Muse’s forceful direction.”  In his MD Theatre Guide notice, Elliot Lanes characterized Cock as “a thought-provoking evening of theatre” with “four great actors and a superb staging.” 

“Smart” and “bold,” Cock, said Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DC Metro Theater Arts, is “a fresh twist on the modern day love triangle” and a “remarkable achievement of a play” of “absorbing writing” and “honesty.”  Bartlett’s “substantive amusingly, clever play,” wrote Dawkins, “is a refreshing exercise in new growth theatre” that’s “a transgressive, no-holds-barred, minimalistic, theatrical adventure to the wild side of sexual politics, competition and word slay.”  With “deft direction,” the production provides “a thrilling rollercoaster ride that not only demands your attention, it will engage and surprise you.”  Concluding that “Cock is a sharp, ripe experience,” Dawkins affirmed that Bartlett’s “incisive” play “pulls no punches.”  A few days later on the same website, John Stoltenberg promised that if he were writing “a theater review it would be an effusive rave.”  (Okay, I’m not sure what the cyber writer thought he was composing here.  Maybe like me, he figures it’s a “report.”  Fair enough.)  The production of the “riveting, tense, tightly wound script,” said the DCMT writer, is “impeccable,” all the elements “flawless.”  “I cannot recall the last time I left the theater having watched a play I found so brilliant and unnerving at the same time,” declared Stoltenberg, immersed as he was in “the extraordinary emotional/relational contest that Bartlett has devised here.”  Though “loaded with substance and insights,” the script “actually plays as a scintillating comedy.”  In the end, Stoltenberg warned, “you walk outside afterward gobsmacked by great theater.” 

I haven’t made up my mind about Bartlett yet, except to say that I want to check him out a little more.  I’m also curious where he’ll go next.  One reviewer here, Peter Marks, compared him with Neil LaBute, but LaBute’s a writer for whom I’ve never developed a fondness, so I can’t make the same assessment.  I have to reserve judgment and say only that I find Bartlett an intriguing and provocative possibility for now, someone I’ll want to watch.  I need more evidence.  I’m not even sure if I liked Cock or just found it interesting and stimulating.  If that’s inconclusive and wishy-washy on my part, then so be it.


1 comment:

  1. According to an announcement in the Washington Post, Studio Theatre extended its run of 'Cock,' originally scheduled to close last Sunday, 22 June, to this Sunday, 29 June. The pertinent part of the WP column, "Play with naughty name sells out" by Rebecca Ritzel, reads:

    "Yes, you can call it a cock and bull story.

    "At Studio Theatre, a play with a title so controversial that it could not be said on public radio airwaves went from attracting smallish crowds in its first week to selling out and extending its run.

    "'Cock' closes Sunday after what the theater can now call a successful 6 1/2-week showing. But back in early May, producing this sexually-charged dark comedy by a British playwright looked like a risky endeavor.

    "'With some shows, pre-sales are strong, and with some shows, pre-sales are not,' said David Muse, Studio's artistic director. 'This was one of the latter.'

    "Marketing the play hit a few snags. Studio bought radio spots on WAMU-FM, but the public radio station decided those promotions should 'not include the title of the play as a matter of sensitivity to our audience,' a WAMU spokeswoman said. The ads promoted 'Mike Bartlett’s play' and then summarized the plot: A guy thinks he's met the girl he's been waiting for, and then he has to go and tell his boyfriend about her.

    "Mike Bartlett's first professional production was only in 2007, and in England he may be better known as a television writer. People who heard the WAMU ads had to go research his play on their own. And it appears they did. Studio's staff tracked Internet metrics, and was able to see that many people who were visiting Studio's 'Cock' Web page were not actually buying tickets.

    "'I do think it was one of those plays where people needed some kind of reassurance that this was something they could go check out,' Muse said. 'One factor won't do it.'"

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