Whichever Top 40 single you may hear upon entering the Studio Theatre in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall this weekend, chances are the song and the presumably rational choice to play it will prompt an eye roll. It certainly didn’t precipitate good will even from me, and I’m inclined to give whatever I enter a theater to see at least a fighting chance. But the music, featuring the aural diversity of Train’s soulful, anguished bleating to 3 Doors Down’s dissonant, anguished bleating, is something of a trick. It’s not merely a way of establishing time and place—that’s a task simple enough to divine purely by paying attention. The nauseatingly boring melodic catalogue is, like the production it inhabits, a means of constructing reality as a lecture, a museum piece where the audience is part of the exhibit.
Oh, and there was a play somewhere in there, too.
I’m referring to Neil LaBute’s Big Message about Important Things, or as it’s more commonly known, “The Shape of Things,” which premiered last night as part of the theatre department’s Second Season. This piece has always seemed a bit lackluster compared to his other works —“Fat Pig” and “Reasons to be Pretty” plays which uncompromisingly rail against the aesthetic values of modern society with fiercely sharp dialogue and righteous anger, which is bounced between characters and theatergoers to make effective, if transparent, polemics. “The Shape of Things” takes a different tack, presenting characters who appear affectionate until the denouement, but its language was too halting and contrived. The jokes rarely hit home, and the action never really seemed to be a logical progression from the characterization, largely because the male lead, Adam — played by Jamie Ellis ’13 —isn’t written to have the major personality change that is needed to make LaBute’s argument ring true.
But in this heart-wrenching interpretation, directed by theatre professor Christopher Owens, such problems are no longer a concern. Instead of placing the growing relationship between Adam and Evelyn (get it?) in a recognizable reality — as LaBute himself did in the forgettable 2003 film adaptation—the entire performance is reduced to that of a PowerPoint presentation, and becomes a realm in which people can be archetypal with no repercussions. What, it doesn’t seem like the two of them would be together? That Adam’s friend Phillip — a serviceable Tyler DeCourt ’13 playing a serviceable role — wouldn’t bother seeing his roommate after they became “former” roommates? That Phillip’s fiancee Jenny — Maren Hunsberger ’15, doing her best — is window dressing until the plot demands her to be otherwise? Well, in this space, naturalism is a thing of the past. You’re sitting in on a seminar, not watching real people interact! There’s no reason to hew to some vague idea of what makes sense, and in this form, the play’s admonitions become quite worthwhile. I’ll leave the complications of improving a play which both despises the constructed aesthetic through aesthetic constructions for someone else to parse.
One consequence of this minimalist vision for “The Shape of Things” is that the actors can be the caricatures LaBute has laid out, yet the portrayals in Owens’s adaptation are far from simplistic avatars for ideology or alteration. Ellis, an actor who proved able to break out of the Woody Allen mode in 2009’s “Bones,” here makes slighter changes to his personality, keeping the hesitant, halting speech but downplaying it as time goes on. It’s worth watching his portrayal in this production since he never really crosses the threshold of likable and unlikable and witnessing his breakdown is undeniably painful. As Evelyn, the sly manipulator of Adam’s looks and lifestyle, Zoe Speas ’12 is captivatingly seductive. Impossible as it is to give the proper credit to her performance without revealing key plot details, suffice it to say that Speas makes it evident that Evelyn’s passions lie outside of her personal life: an argument about the proper meaning of radical artistic expression evokes more fury and zeal than the tenderest moments between her and Adam. Their chemistry is almost sickeningly sweet, though, and that’s as it should be — the more sympathetic the romance, the more shocking it is when the rug is pulled out from underneath it.
I’ll be honest, my own biases against the play are going to work against any production of “The Shape of Things” I’m called to review. But thanks to the ingenuity of this staging, I’ve been won over. There are a few times when the show doesn’t provide evidence for what LaBute is trying to say and falls victim to the inconsistencies that plague the script itself. But who would I be to ask for perfection?