“It’s the kind of exciting work StageWest has always brought to town,” claims Todd Buchacker. “It proves we’re still taking chances.”
Buchacker, the director for this show, might be talking about the title alone: “Cock.” The word isn’t quite so shocking in England, however, where playwright Mike Bartlett set his drama. There it can mean everything from “a pal” to “a jerk.” So, too, the play’s challenges have to do with more than smutty talk.
“Sometimes it feels as if the whole crew is working on a great acting experiment,” says Buchacker.
For one thing, “Cock” does without theatrical furniture.
“When someone says, ‘May I take your coat?’ there’s no coat and no closet.”
Instead, Buchacker thinks of the set as “a playing field,” explains Bartlett. Designer Tim Wisgherof constructed a bare rectangle — its only props are immoveable blocks. On all sides, seats rise steeply raked, as if around a playing field — or a stadium for cockfights.
This is the sort of fight the play gives us, though in yet another sense of the word. “Cock” dramatizes a struggle over sexual identity. The protagonist John — sometimes simply J — starts out as a member of a gay couple. He and his partner, “M,” seem happy, yet before long he’s tumbled into an affair with a woman named — what else? — “W.” The names work like placeholders in keeping with the barren arena in which everyone’s struggling at tug-o’-war.
Events include a bit of sex, a scene Buchacker describes as “really fun.” At the least, the hugging and kissing must look pretty strange on such a set. Also, class issues emerge despite the absence of costumes and toys that money can buy. Shifts from scene to scene depend on sound and lighting, and for this, StageWest has brought back Jim Trenberth and Josh Jepson, the duo who made “Neighborhood of Doom” so electrifying. Overall, J’s dilemma remains stark and elemental.
“It’s a play about the debates we have with ourselves,” says Buchacker. “Debates not only about identity but about relationships, too. John may not make the happiest choice for himself. A choice of ‘the devil you know,’ maybe.”
To get across these subtleties, Buchacker has relied on his actors more than usual. M is played by local newcomer Jason Bohon, a visiting professor at Drake, while Jordan Jepson plays J. But they and the others have to create “ensemble magic,” as Buchacker calls it, since they’re all onstage the entire time. Even when not in a scene, J, M and W sit quietly beneath their own icon: a picture of cock — a rooster — that Wisgerhof designed for each. J’s bird is skeletal, a wire outline that still needs coloring in.
Sounds like the audience will keep the debates going afterwards, in the bar.
Overheard in the Lobby: At the Playhouse, “The Miracle Worker” starts this weekend, and one of the actresses was in the 1962 movie with Patty Duke. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.