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Less is Way More in Cock

By Patrick Hurley

Who says size matters? The Rogue Machine Theatre clearly believes that magical things can happen in the tiniest of spaces. And they prove it once again with Cock, the searing new drama by British playwright Mike Bartlett, which is making its Los Angeles premiere, and is playing now through November 3.

The theater itself is a small circle of a room that maybe seats forty people, and the actors work on a small circular stage that feels almost a part of the audience. The result, however, is entirely successful because of the nimble direction of Cameron Watson, marvelous performances from the entire cast, and an adherence to the idea that less is more.

Cock 2The story centers on John (Patrick Stafford) and his burgeoning sexual ambivalence. He is a self-identified gay man in a gay relationship with a man who is only known as M (Matthew Elkins). It starts with a series of scenes, of confrontations between John and M where John reveals that he has had an affair…with a woman. After the vignettes between John and M, we swap to vignettes between John and the woman he’s having the affair with, known only as W (Rebecca Mozo). We see John and W’s relationship from the first time they meet, through their first sexual encounter, and all the way to the point where John is forced to make a choice between M or W.

M is aware that John is sleeping with W, and W is aware that John is still in a relationship and living with M. The conflict is heightened by the fact that John can’t decide who he wants to be with. He tells both of them that he will choose them, and so when M and W are in the same room with John, a happy resolution seems impossible.

M invites W to dinner, where he assumes John will tell her that because he’s gay he’ll be staying with M. W agrees to attend the dinner because she assumes that John is going to tell M that his sexuality doesn’t matter, they’re in love and he’s choosing her. And then there’s John, making no actual decisions, and allowing all of the assumptions to continue. The night of the dinner, M invites his father (Gregory Itzin) for support, and because his father is an advocate for him and John, he hopes his presence will solidify John’s decision to stay with him.

It’s kind of a train wreck. You know like life. The dinner scene is filled with revelations, harsh words, and heartfelt pleas. The result is one that feels brutally inevitable, and surprising all at once.

Cock 3This production could have been hindered by the extremely small space, but instead it flourished because of it. For example, nearly all of the action was implied. When someone hands something to someone, they don’t mime it, they don’t pretend, one character simply says, “here you are,” and the character receiving simply says, “thank you.” This implied action frees the actors from awkward movements of pretense, and allows them to fully realize the emotional world they must inhabit. This is not a play about people eating dinner, or having sex, it’s about much more, and it exposes it all bare, without the nuisance of props or sets.

Speaking of people having sex, the sex scene between John and W is a particularly powerful bit of staging. They stand close enough so that their bodies are nearly touching, but no contact is made until the end of the scene. The dialogue is so cleverly vivid, that it serves as the only necessary aspect to the entire scene. However, this production benefits from the two actors who enhance the moment and bring enough authenticity to convince us that they are, in fact, having sex in front of us. The small space, once again, served the production well. The intimacy was raised because the actors were only inches from the people in the front row. We’re brought into the play, we’re almost a part of it, and so we get caught up. It’s the magic of theater.

Playwright Mike Bartlett is a brilliant young voice in the theater, and this play pushes the boundaries of accepted sexual identity, and forces us to examine the labels we so readily place, not only on ourselves, but on others as well. By calling the characters M and W, there’s a symbolism at work, though not subtle, about identity. It’s not about a lonely woman who falls in love with a gay man, nor is it about a confused gay man who sleeps with a woman because he wants to be “normal.” No, this is about individualism. It’s about rejecting the notion that we are all one thing or another. M’s father tells John that he has to come to terms with who he is. He suggests that there are really only a couple of options, and it’s time for John to tell everyone. But this play is about how one person can be drawn to another person, regardless of gender, or sexual orientation. And this can be quite unsettling. W, at one point responds to John’s claim that he’s never been attracted to women with the line, “I’m not women. I’m me.” And it says it all.

Director Cameron Watson sticks to less is more with the physical action, so that the emotional moments can reach the levels that they do. The slow build toward the climax was superbly executed. Everything that occurs feels important or significant somehow, even down to the fact that the entire theatre was green. Green paint, green curtains, green cushions on some of the theatre seats. The green floor of the stage, though not a disruption, allows for the symbolism of envy to permeate. And in a show where characters are called M and W, the use of other perfunctory symbols was kind of a no-brainer.

The cast couldn’t have been better. In the smallest part, Gregory Itzen as F (for father) was a gentle element that served as a buffer between sharp-tongued M, defensive W, and indecisive John. Mr. Itzen allows F’s genuine affection toward his son and John to come across with his every line, and it’s a welcome tenderness that is lacking in the other characters. He symbolizes a different generation, one that struggled to accept sexuality as something more than just one thing, and Mr. Itzen plays it just right.
Cock 2

Rebecca Mozo keeps W from becoming a desperate woman chasing after a gay man. She holds onto W’s rationality, while still conveying a kind of desperation. Her character’s changes throughout the play feel absolutely earned because she never goes for the easy or obvious choice. She is a realized character, not a symbolic one.

As M, Matthew Elkins is outstanding. He is caustic and bitter, and deeply hurting. His love for John is apparent, and so is the pain that John causes. But what the actor really does so well is owning all of M’s insecure self-righteousness. He is the gay equivalent of a woman scorned, and all of his mannerisms, his speech, even his posture scream indignation and insecurity at the same time. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, because he is fascinating to watch.

Finally, as John, Patrick Stafford gives a revelatory performance. He is a weak character at times, one who fears taking action. A bold choice for a playwright to make. A protagonist who doesn’t want to take action? However, as John is slowly forced into action, so too is the actor, and at nearly every turn, Mr. Stafford makes bold, honest, and sometimes heartbreaking choices to genuine effect.

Rogue Machine is a small venue that keeps putting out some of the best theater in Los Angeles. Proving that you can work wonders in small ways. They take big risks, choose less than traditional material, and showcase excellent performances. And Cock is a great example of all of these things. This is must-see theater at its most exciting.

 

Cock

By Mike Bartlett

Directed by Cameron Watson

 

Rogue Machine (In Theatre/Theater)

5041 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, Ca. 90019

 

Sept 13-November 3

Tickets $30

 

www.roguemachinetheatre.com

855.585.5185

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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