By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Truth is, from the female perspective, all men are fixer-uppers. There's always at least one thing he does wrong that, were he to fix it according to our instructions, he'd be just about perfect. Like that guy who wears tasseled loafers with shorts. A simple repair. Or the otherwise lovely man who, ahem, sucks his teeth after every meal. One salts his food before tasting it. Another insists on mispronouncing "ebullient."
Annoyances like these loom large one-on-one. But they're fixable, and women love the challenge of a stealth operation. A carefully worded compliment here, a flirtatious gesture there, and a man will make necessary changes. To please a woman, a man will stop tasseling, sucking and salting. And like Dr. Frankenstein watching his Monster rise from the operating table, we will feel eh-BOOL-yent over the results of our efforts.
Neil LaBute's sly, funny play The Shape of Things, onstage at Collin County Community College's Quad C Theatre, takes as its central theme the current cultural obsession with the makeover, stealthy or otherwise. Tapping right into a Zeitgeist swimming with The Swan, Queer Eye and I Want a Famous Face, this play asks, can an extreme makeover be considered art?
Evelyn (Sarah Saunders), an attractive MFA student at a small-town university, is a serious artist, or so she says. She abhors censorship and sets out to make a statement on a marble sculpture of a Greek god in an art museum. Wielding a can of red spray paint, she adds a penis over a plaster fig leaf that the conservative town council has affixed to the nude's naughty bits. "I don't like art that isn't the truth," she says to Adam (Andy Bean), the shy, droopy security guard who tries, not too effectively, to stop her from defacing the piece.
Evelyn, 26, plays the flirty girl with Adam, a 22-year-old undergrad English major with zero confidence. She tells him he's cute, and he digs his toe into the floor and gnaws his raw cuticles. He summons the courage to ask her out. She accepts. She sleeps with him (his first conquest in years) and videotapes their gymnastic lovemaking. Everything about strong-willed, sexy Evelyn turns Adam on.
Soon Adam sheds his nerdy veneer. He drops weight, donates his ancient corduroy jacket to Goodwill and de-gunks his hair. Under Evelyn's guidance, Adam also becomes a more facile liar. He deep-sixes a friendship with his longtime roommate Phillip (Jeremy Stein), whom Evelyn loathes, and tunnels under Phillip's plans to marry Jenny (Gretchen Schmoker), a naïve little bunny who's no match for Evelyn's criticism. When Adam gets a tattoo and then sees a plastic surgeon for a nose job, it's clear that Evelyn is Henry Higgins in Eve Harrington drag.
But how far will insecure Adam go to please Evelyn? How far will Evelyn go to transform Adam into the perfect mate? And what exactly is this mysterious "sculpture thingy" that she is building for her thesis project?
Any synopsis of a LaBute play makes it sound deceptively formula-driven. But LaBute, 41, is the new Mamet, maybe even the new David Hare. With each new work, he finds a different way to explore some disturbing aspect of human behavior, the betrayal of lovers being his most common thread. The Shape of Things, like most LaBute scripts, is dark, funny and unpredictable. This writer likes making audiences squirm as his characters struggle through the ugly tug-of-war between the id, that part of the psyche controlled by natural instincts, and the ego, fighting for self-preservation at all costs. In Bash, produced in recent years by several area theaters, LaBute presented three stories of seemingly normal people who snap suddenly into violence. In The Mercy Seat, still playing at Kitchen Dog Theater, he shows an adulterous affair between an older woman and younger man unraveling in the guilt-inducing aftermath of 9-11. His leading characters are often selfish, unlikable schmucks, but they're never boring.
The Shape of Things is better than Bash or The Mercy Seat. And certainly Quad C's production outshines Kitchen Dog's current effort with finer acting, sharper direction (by Rosemary K. Andress) and a more sneakily clever design scheme (by a team of student designers) that offers some satisfying surprises to the careful viewer (pay attention to those shifting, gray-splattered platforms).
Quad C's drama students are among the best stage actors around, local pros included, and the foursome in Shape is tops. Sarah Saunders makes Evelyn the smart, slinky stepchild of Glenn Close's Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction. As Adam falls under her spell, it's clear Evelyn's up to something with this unlucky schmo, but not until the twisted end do we find out what her motives are. Saunders, a brunet beauty, is a young actress of exceptional subtlety. Her "choices" onstage, as actors like to call them, are always interesting and original.
As Adam, Andy Bean has the tough job of starting out a loser and ending up--10 scenes, two hours and no intermission later--as an Adonis. He pulls it off, and he and Saunders have chemistry to burn.
In the supporting roles of Phillip and Jenny, Jeremy Stein and Gretchen Schmoker succeed at making lesser characters almost as interesting as the leads. Stein is particularly affecting in his final confrontation with Adam.
Big snaps to those young designers--scenic artist Erin Bailey, sound designer Justin A.P. Jones, makeup designer Andrea Throop--for creating a cohesive plan that is abstract but not distracting. Lighting by Craig "Yo" Erickson is just right, too. Every aspect of this production has been well-crafted, including the many scene changes, which take place in full view of the audience in carefully choreographed sequences featuring five human "statues'' (Michelle Ferguson, Nicolas Flower, Kris Gonzalez, Morgan Justiss, Tyler Southard). Their precisely timed moves keep the transitions zipping along without a lull.
The Shape of Things sneaks its heavier messages in under the story of Evelyn and Adam and the latter's visible transformation. While taking shots at the shallow values of the art establishment, the play also exposes the media's focus on achieving physical beauty, no matter how plastic, as a soulless epidemic of ego inflation. This play also offers a fairly heady commentary on how easily a man can be manipulated to change his "base materials" if he's promised a pretty piece of ass. Fixer-uppers, take note.