Watching Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things is an interesting experience if you are currently in a graduate program for the arts. I chose to see this play because it is one that I have seen several times in production, and each time I feel differently about the play as a whole. As MFA art student Evelyn manipulates the seemingly innocent Adam, the audience member is left to wonder about the relationship between art and emotional investment. Sometimes I feel like LaBute has no respect for any of the characters in his plays, especially the women (I am not the first person to think this). Other times I feel like he is just testing us, trying to find the limit of human compassion. In Jump for Joy Productions’ debut show, it is obvious that things are shaping up. Though there are some technical issues with the production, the actors gain momentum as the play progresses, ending up with a decent production. Workshop Theater Company’s Jewel Box Theater is decorated with a simple poster of a painting. We are in a museum. This simplicity of design is perfectly suited to the intimate space, and director Renee Rodriguez allows her actors to use the space well, at first. Unfortunately, as the production continues, the set changes and costume changes become too involved for the tiny space, overwhelming it with half-light or blackout periods that are too long. One lone stagehand moves everything, occasionally assisted by an actor. I much prefer the moments where the poster, held to the wall by a single tack, is changed. New picture, new space - it is that simple. The disconnect between the expensive costumes (I saw the J. Crew label on Adam’s jacket) and the understaffed, clunky set changes strikes me as the major weakness in this production.
Yet, at its heart, The Shape of Things is about the people. I have to say that the acting improved considerably throughout the show. I appreciated Adam (Michael Wetherbee) for his awkwardness, and I think he did a nice job transforming throughout the piece. Evelyn (Samantha Payne Garland) handled the final moments of the play better than the actresses in other productions I’ve seen, though I still have not seen anyone play this character believably. Garland still seems to lack the purely cold affect that lurks in the lines. Likewise, Jenny (Mallory Campbell) is initially played as a pure stereotype of a neurotic, pearl-wearing college student.
I agree that the somewhat two dimensional natures of these characters are partially due to LaBute’s lines, but there are ways of overcoming that. This is proven first by the portrayal of Phillip (Nathan Atkinson). Atkinson’s charm is perfect for Phillip, the college student who wears his sunglasses on his head, even at night. Phillip is a stereotype, to be sure, but Atkinson is able to convince us that it is easy to both love and hate Phillip simultaneously. Atkinson and Wetherbee have a wonderful dynamic in Scene 7, where they do homework on the campus lawn. The energy, listening, and interactions in this scene make it the most engaging moment in the production.
Though I think that the men have more consistently strong performances, this is not to say that the women are left in the dust. Campbell’s Jenny has a very strong moment during a speech she gives in Scene 8. Her honest attempt to communicate with Evelyn is emotionally charged without being over the top. In fact, this is a general theme in the production: each emotional outburst seems motivated and has a natural arc. Characters take the time to get angry and cool down, creating a textured unity in the piece as a whole.
I am still unsure as to whether or not I “like” The Shape of Things , and I feel that it is only fair to warn potential viewers about the dark depths of human nature that it explores. I can say that I appreciate a production that considers both sides of this complicated puzzle of emotionality. If the cast starts every performance with the energy they had at the end of the performance tonight, things will keep shaping up for them.