Crossing Swords

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profiles theater cockOf course, I would never miss the chance of seeing a play called Cock.  So when I was in New York on business in the summer of 2012, I snuck away after interminable day-long discussions of system user training strategies to check out the off-Broadway premiere of Mike Barlett’s acclaimed Olivier award-winning play at the Duke on 42nd Street, as staged by its Royal Court Theater director James MacDonald with an American cast led by Jason Harner Butler and the pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s Cory Michael Smith. And I loved it- fresh, contemporary, devoid of any of the salaciousness that its title initially evokes even with non-gutter-dwellers, Cock was a riveting, inventive, intensely thoughtful play about sexual identity and fluidity.  So when I heard that the brazen and raucous Profiles Theater, the one Chicago theater that has both infuriated and provoked me, sometimes at the same time, will be staging the Midwest premiere, I thought, wow, I couldn’t have made up a better match between theater company and theatrical material. And Profile’s Cock is a bad-ass gem:  as smart and probing as the off-Broadway production but without its sometimes enervated quality; earthier, louder, sexier, a terrific interpretation of a play that upends the audiences’ beliefs about what it means to be gay, straight, bisexual, questioning, or whatever wavering signpost you claim to be along that complex continuum we call sexuality.

Cock is about John, a twentysomething gay guy who breaks up with his partner, the older M, after years of hissyfits and gay drama and then immediately launches into a heterosexual affair with W, a divorced woman closer to his age.  Then he pingpongs back and forth between M and W, swearing undying love and sexual attention to both of them, until everything comes to a head (pun not intended, I swear!) in an apocalyptic dinner party with the three of them and M’s father F (yeah, the whole M, W, F character names are obviously precious, but a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent script).  All of this is staged in a stylized manner as a human cockfight in short scenes marked by a fight bell, the actors performing in a ring with the audience seated around them amphitheater style, watching these proud lovers cross swords in emotionally bruising debates about relationships, intimacy, indecision, the tradeoffs when making choices, the sinking realization that sometimes in the 21st century games of love and chance there will only be losers.  Bartlett writes about a topic that truly resonates with me; as a gay guy who is part of a generation that grew up in the 1980s sexual orientation was clearly and categorically defined, I’m often perplexed by the openness and nonchalance of friends and sometime-lovers from the millennial generation with regards to going both ways with the people they fall in love with and/or sleep with.  So when John says near the end of the play “What is gay? What is straight? These are words from the 1960s”, Bartlett sharply draws the point of view of a generation where “gay” has become so integrated in their lives (through having friends and family from my generation; pop culture; media) that “straight” isn’t a clear-cut differentiator anymore. I also love how Bartlett clearly delineates why John is so conflicted with his relationships:  despite M’s high-strung diva antics, John is clearly smitten with the older man’s sense of self and accomplishment, things he lacks; but M has formed a stable, solid life and John is just a part that slid into it. With W, on the other hand, he gets the reassurance of being someone who is his peer and the opportunity to form a future life on equal footing, but with all its frustrating messiness and need-to-figure-it-outs.  Bartlett’s writing is superb- brisk, sometimes catty, sometimes sweet, always real.

Profiles Co-Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox directs Cock with a warm intelligence that complements the material. And I like the way he blocks the actors, a lot more rigid in fight formation than the sometimes loosey-gooseyness of the off-Broadway production. This is truly a cockfight: M vs. John, W vs. John, M vs. W, F vs. W and John, John vs. himself and Cox never lets us forget it for one second. My only reservation about the direction is that I wished Cox restrained himself from applying the usual Profiles’ skin-baring formula (all 3 leads strip down to their skivvies or less); it’s a departure from the London and New York productions that intentionally played all the sex scenes with the actors clothed to make the point that emotional nakedness which the characters all display is the most painful, most powerful nudity of all.

The cast bares their emotions and hearts with unnerving intensity, and they impressively do this crouched, sunk, prone in Katie Bell-Springman’s astounding wood-chip and saw-dust stage, meant to evoke a cockfighting ring in Mexico City where Bartlett wrote the play (in contrast, the New York production had a more genteel croquet lawn covering the performance area) .  Bell-Springman’s use of corrugated tin roofing to enclose the ring is genius, again emphasizing the rough, no-holds-barred nature of these gladiatorial love matches.  Jake Szczepaniak seems a little younger than M is as written but he is appropriately loud, furious, histrionic, yet also achingly real in his pain and confusion that his boyfriend would trade him for a woman. Ellen Pappageorge is warm yet ferocious as W and steadfastly holds her own against M’s raging diva. Veteran Chicago actor Larry Neumann Jr. barrels in near the end of the play in his endearingly idiosyncratic Dennis Hopper-meets-Chicago Southside manner and imbues F with a sincerity that makes the character more than just a scold. But it’s Christopher Sheard who gives the star performance in this production – his John is both attractive and infuriating in his indecision and flakiness, but also so full of genuine heart you want to run your fingers through his wavy hair even while you’d like to smack his sorry ass. It is a warm-blooded performance, an impressive calling card from a young actor just bursting into the Chicago theater scene. He couldn’t have chosen a better vehicle to do so.

Cock is at the Main Stage of Profiles Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway, until April 6.

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