Tuesday, September 26, 2006

opening-night review of *The Shape of Things* (filed late)

at Actors Rep, through Oct. 8

In a play about the human body, its contortions and refashionings, Michael Weaver has directed his actors with a strong eye toward how they move through space. Couples flirt around picnic tables, roll around and argue in bed, confront each other in front of works of art — and all the time, Weaver is making sure that the vulnerabilities and aggressions are maintained.

The soul of this show, Evelyn, lacks a soul. Julie M. Zimmer starts out the evening with girlish aggressiveness; you can never quite figure out if Evelyn’s eyes are flickering in flirtation or deceit. Beautiful and intriguing, she’s the spirit of animosity decked out in pigtails. But Zimmer’s performance, while strong, is uneven: A crucial late monologue, with Evelyn at her most supremely confident, felt under-rehearsed and tentative.

People whose affection comes with strings attached are often blinded by their own egotism. LaBute is cautioning us about men who terrorize their girlfriends, about women who impose a few boyfriend-alterations: They look at others and see their own reflections. Evelyn’s cagey and brilliant, but she couldn’t catch a literary allusion if somebody handed her Desdemona’s handkerchief. In LaBute’s English-major world, that’s shorthand for “callous, unfeeling bitch.” Zimmer finds glimmers of humanity in some of the concluding scenes, however, triumphing over the largely misogynistic characterization that the playwright framed her with.

Despite all the moral ugliness, it’s surprising how funny this play is in performance. A play about distrust, jealousy and manipulation isn’t likely to be soothing. And more than most contemporary plays, *The Shape of Things* will have you shifting uncomfortably and looking sideways to check how others are reacting. The shifts from violence to comedy are sudden: At one point, Evelyn is rolling around in satin sheets with her lover, chatting about how the only way to help Phil would be to stick a knife through his throat. Adam’s rejoinder — “I’m glad I don’t have a pet rabbit or anything right now” — got nervous giggles.

Evan Hernandez at first plays Adam, appropriately, as a bit of a nerd: fists on hips, exasperated by the perkiness of this strange artiste. Hernandez, like his character, can surprise with sudden wisecracks and self-assertions: He’s not simply a pushover. It’s a winning performance, even if the tragic moments in Adam’s story-arc were less convincing.


For comments on the uncomfortableness of LaBute's themes, on John Hofland's set, and on the two supporting actors, pick up a copy of *The Inlander* this Thursday, Sept. 28.


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