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An Argument Takes Shape

Sides will be taken in this robust Manbites Dog production. But which side is the playwright on?


It's the tag line of an old country song: For every woman who's made a fool of a man, there's a woman who's made a man of a fool. Having seen Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, we now know it's possible to do both simultaneously.

By now, LaBute, a spellbinding and improbably modern Mormon playwright, has made a theatrical signature out of wrestling with the moral contradictions of our age. Regional playgoers experienced as much last season, when Raleigh Ensemble Players forced audiences to literally face themselves in a mirror while witnessing LaBute's wrenching trilogy of interior confessions in the aptly titled Bash: Latterday Plays.

Given the escalating events since its 1999 debut, Bash now seems eerily prescient in its explorations of the aftermath of violence and sexual abuse visited upon children, by parents and people in positions of authority.

In decided contrast, The Shape of Things purports to examine--or, more frankly, cross-examine--the moral intersection of postmodern art and academics, but ultimately, more fundamental assumptions about the nature of art come under scrutiny.

By play's end, LaBute makes clear the things that trouble him: Artistic transformation is not the same thing as redemption, and in this age artists do not automatically convey both upon their subjects. Even more disturbing for LaBute, not all creation is done out of love.

The rhetoric may certainly take us aback and possibly even convince us that such things should not be so, before, that is, we recall that both of the above statements may be said about much of the art of protest that's come out of the past two centuries.

Neither Ronald Arneson's anti-war sculptures nor John Heartfield's political photomontage illustrations from the dawn of Nazi Germany can be said to stem from a deep-seated love of their respective subjects. While both may wish to immortalize the atrocities they depict, somehow you can just tell: Redemption isn't exactly what's on their minds in their work. Nor arguably should it be.

So, is it protest art that LaBute--a playwright whose work is increasingly identified within the realm of social protest--is actually against? Or is he after more subtle game?

Judge for yourself. Adam and Evelyn, the portentiously named central couple, are both students in a small Midwestern college town. They're not the likeliest of couples. She's a full-scholarship graduate student in art; he's trying to finish his undergraduate in English while holding down three jobs, one as a docent at an art museum. In fact, that's where Adam first meets Evelyn just before she commits an act of artistic vandalism styled after the Guerilla Girls. If Adam isn't able to stop her from spray-painting the genitalia of a classical sculpture recently bowdlerized by the locals, at least he has the gumption to ask her out. A relationship develops, one largely characterized by Evelyn's various efforts to spruce Adam up.

In that, she has her work cut out for her. While Evelyn comes off as a stylish, confident bohemian from the big city slumming her way through this college in the sticks, Adam starts off pretty much as an alpha geek with serious self-esteem issues. He's a walking doormat for former roommate Phillip and everyone else, whose inner anxieties are reflected in perpetually self-deprecating humor, deflected glances and nails on both hands perpetually bitten down to the quick.

Plus those glasses! And that hair! As boyfriend material, Adam's not only a "real fixer-upper," the question of just what Evelyn actually sees in him becomes a central issue by the end of LaBute's script.

At any rate, her prodding and poking do take effect. He starts eating right, exercising, losing weight and gaining muscle tone. The Brylcreme gets ditched, along with much of his loser wardrobe. And contacts are substituted for those aging aviator glasses.

Adam's dry sense of humor lets us know that he's aware of the Pygmalion aspect of their relationship. But ultimately, Evelyn evinces more than one agenda for her interests in Adam.

The biblical slant in the central couple's names should suggest a mutual fall from some sort of innocence. But really, that's not the story here. In LaBute's script and this production--and, of course, the precepts of conventional Christianity--clearly the woman's to blame. Given the story, Evelyn actually "fell" years or decades before she met Adam.

But to what did she succumb? The evils of protest art--which The Shape of Things arguably constitutes in itself? Or was it instead the wiles of feminism, gender studies and the artistic and social critiques that have come out of them?

It's telling that our first experience of Evelyn is in a self-styled spray paint intervention patterned after contemporary feminist art activists. It's even more telling when that intervention is not Evelyn's last.

So, is The Shape of Things an indictment of a brand of radical art activism which holds that all in a culture are complicit in its crimes, and no one is innocent? Or is LaBute saying that feminist art activism is somehow uniquely guilty of the specified crimes? Is his true target guerilla art in general--or just Guerilla Girls?

As I said earlier, you'll have to reach your own conclusions on that one. It's less controversial to conclude that LaBute's script is taut and certainly compelling, all the way up until a far-from-perfect final-act endgame reduces Evelyn to little more than a straw horse on a soapbox. When that happens, not only does the play's suddenly wooden mechanics reveal Evelyn's hidden agenda, it gets us to wondering whether LaBute has one as well.

Clearly, we're meant to be appalled at the polemics of her penultimate monologue, and to reject out of hand the extremity of her conclusions. But the debatable nature of what else LaBute wants us to reject along with them leaves The Shape of Things in question.

All in all, it's an argument well worth joining, particularly given the talented cast and direction in this production. Guest director Jay O'Berski has unerringly cast a quartet of Manbites Dog newcomers out of the undergraduate theater programs at Duke and UNC. Daniel Smith effectively makes Adam's boorish former roommate, Phillip, a total jerk by the end of Act One, while Meghan Valerio gives his fiancé, Jenny, all the right wallflower notes.

Blaine Barbee is stunning as Evelyn, a young juggernaut and ideologue who hates false art, but who's apparently prepared to be more tolerant of that quality in other parts of her life. Meanwhile, Vince Eisenson brings nuance, context and vulnerability to the role of changeling/boyfriend Adam.

While certain performances do leave the question of artistic range to another day, all hands are perfect for this one. O'Berski's brisk, sure-footed direction is ably abetted by Erik Niemi's string of music videos that detail Vince's physical metamorphosis. All elements abet LaBute's clear desire to provoke an argument about modern art. It's one you should get in on. EndBlock

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