By Neil LaBute
Directed by Tom Healey
With Kat Stewart, Brett Cousins, Kate Cole & Simon Wood
GREEN ROOM AWARDS Nomination Best Production, Won Best Actress: Kat Stewart (The SHape of Things/Bug)
Set Design by Darryl Cordell
Lighting by Luke Hails
Stage Managers Jess Smithett and Natasha Marich
The Shape of Things (Nov 16 – Dec 17, 2005) Helen Thomson, The Age 22/11/2005
In this play by American writer Neil LaBute, best known for the play and film In the Company of Men, Red Stitch has found a work that requires, and here receives, extraordinary performances to carry off its edgy style and shocking plot transformation.
The Shape of Things initially seems just another variation on the theme of a young foursome whose love interests become entangled, three of them small-town inhabitants who are challenged and disturbed by an outsider who seems to push the boundaries of their comfort zones.
Evelyn (Kat Stewart) is an art student who encounters Adam (Brett Cousins) at a gallery where she is about to deface a sculpture that puritanical citizens have censored with a fig leaf.
She is a tough risk-taker with an extreme theory of art; smart and sexy. He is a classic nerd, working and studying part-time, dazzled by her interest in him.
Unlikely as it seems, they nevertheless begin a relationship, and Adam is rapidly transformed by Evelyn’s suggestions. Diet, exercise, contact lenses, even a little plastic surgery, turn him into a remarkably attractive man.
Evelyn also has an impact on Adam’s friends, Jenny (Kate Cole) and Phillip (Simon Wood). His old flatmate and Evelyn clash immediately, Phillip’s chauvinism challenged by her feminism. Jenny, on the other hand, suddenly finds the transformed Adam disturbingly sexy.
What turns this into an almost tragically affecting, very different play, is a revelation (its surprise is crucial and therefore shouldn’t be revealed here) that lifts a story of personal relationships into an exploration of the morality of art itself.
Suddenly, the apparently casual quotations from great artists and writers that have been dropped throughout focus on an extreme form of art for art’s sake, one that calls itself amoral and declares that morality is irrelevant to it. Oscar Wilde is quoted, stating insincerity and treachery are necessary qualities in the artist, and this comes to have a terrible resonance in the context of this story.
The four actors, meticulously directed by Tom Healey, give intense performances. Brett Cousins (winner of the 2004 Green Room best actor award) and Kat Stewart are outstanding.
Susan Horsburgh, The Australian 22/11/2005
No one does casual cruelty quite like Neil LaBute and, in this production of the American writer’s disturbing play, The Shape of Things, Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors Theatre seems to thoroughly delight in taking its audience on a compelling, provocative tour of humanity’s dark side.
In the cosy surrounds of its 58-seat St Kilda HQ, the independent ensemble tells the funny, intriguing tale of four American college students grappling with life, love and the moral ambiguities of art.
The play opens in a university museum when Evelyn, a sexy young art student, meets Adam, the insecure literature major and part-time museum attendant who tries to stop her from defacing a statue with a spray-painted penis. Their verbal jousting quickly turns into romance and before long Adam is under Evelyn’s spell.
Adam’s friends Phillip and Jenny watch dismayed as Evelyn coaxes him into transforming his wardrobe, pruning back his relationships and even trimming his nose until he is unrecognisable, even to himself.
In an era of televised extreme makeovers, it’s an interesting critique of the American penchant for supposed self-improvement, but of course there is a suitably macabre LaBute twist that muddies the waters even more.
With the cast pushing around a set of big wooden blocks doubling for college beds and park benches, the staging isn’t quite as elaborate as the all-star New York production I saw five years ago — which featured Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd, who also starred in LaBute’s 2003 film version — but Red Stitch’s is no less engaging. Directed by Tom Healey, all four cast members turn in strong performances, with Kat Stewart all insouciant undergraduate smugness as Evelyn and Brett Cousins as the dork-done-good in her thrall.
Guest actor Simon Wood is convincing as the stiff, unreconstructed jock in Seinfeldian white runners. And Kate Cole is endearing as the sweet but dim Jenny, one of the highlights being her squeaky humiliated hysterics towards the end of the play.
Darryl Cordell’s set is spare but clever, with spotlit souvenirs of each scene accumulating around the stage as the show progresses, ultimately creating an art-installation setting for the play’s devastating conclusion.
As the lights come up, the shell-shocked audience is left to file out of the tiny playhouse, debating the slippery ethics of art and the way love and aspiration can sometimes cause us to lose ourselves.