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5/22/12

Describing "Cock"...No, Really

Metaphors are a writer’s best friend in adding depth to a show. They are also a reward for the audience members paying astute attention to the production in front of them and simultaneously taking in the entertainment.

So what comes to mind when the metaphor in question is “Cock?” How do you work with that?

No seriously, Cock is the name of an actual show. Shacking up at the Duke on 42nd Street after an acclaimed run at London’s Royal Court Theater, the first thing that jumps out at you is long before the actors take the…stage? You walk into a makeshift, constructed stadium, five rows deep, where the actors gladiator-style battle perform no more then a few paces away from the first row. We are talking lap dance territory if one of the actors stumbles over his or her feet.

As if the setting was not epic enough, try this on for size: the audience lighting did not go down. When I realized that the two main characters, John and ‘M’, came out at center stage floor, I realized I can still see the people on the opposite end of the stadium. And in perfect lighting, I could have started judging their fashion choices. Okay, I did do that; I just couldn’t help myself.

The show continued to throw me off with its unique take on a love-triangle. Because that is basically the entire show; watching John, on a break from a long-term relationship with his gay partner ‘M’, become intertwined and shagging a new female companion in ‘W’. No one is happy about this and the analysis/blame game kicks off. Obviously, a “Cock” metaphor is that of a cockfight, but even goes as far as reflecting John’s testicular fortitude in making an incredibly tough decision in regards to his sexuality and choice of mating partner.

But Cock is more then a bunch of witty metaphors; in fact, it is almost above that as it tries to avoid the “show” label. Like any relationship bout, it is all in the details and Cock is basically made entirely out of them. You feel like you are ringside to your friends or acquaintances bickering, only helped by some spot-on dialogue. In a generation of reality television celebrities fighting on-camera with non-coherent bile flowing from their mouths, here comes dialogue that manages to be incredibly realistic without being boring. It also succeeds in subtlety and entertainment value, way more then anything you would find from the housewives of whatever city or any edition of The Bachelor(ette). In short, this play is the answer to this generation that watching couples fight and break-up can be raw, passionate and relevant instead of being a cacophony of cray-cray for the sake of being cray-cray.

The love-triangle in itself is a slightly more interesting concept with John’s confused sexuality thrown into the mix (and that’s saying a lot from me; I can’t stand love triangles as a form of plot). What transforms the show, in addition to the staging and dialogue, is that it really plays up the intelligence of the audience. The writing leaves holes in the timeline, as done by using a boxing-match style bell to start/end each little vignette, expecting the audience to mentally fill in the blanks and process even the most subtle of dialogue or emotion. Bottom line: it is not all spelled out for you. Watch the actors trade blows each “round” and you realize you are learning more from these characters by what is unsaid and what we are not being shown. Our imagination tends to run wild as we try to take in John and ‘M’’s tumultuous relationship, but by the end, we get a great grasp as to the big picture, who these characters are, what the relationship status quo is, etc.

The only issue I took with the writing of the show is…well, I was not convinced that John is this irresistible person to have two people opining so hard for him. The writing of his character is one of confusion and erratic behavior…how does that explain the hold he has over ‘M’ and ‘W’? John is kind of dousche-tastic to both people when it comes down to it, no matter what internal dilemmas he incurs. And when called out as to why they love him, M & W don’t really have definitive answers other then “feelings” or something. Yeah, a show that has demonstrated great taste in the writing department really glossed over this little department.

But for nearly the entire time, I was hooked into the show and not just because I was a few feet away from the actors. Speaking of which, there was some mighty fine performances on display and that is particularly important considering there is no stage, props, costumes or event contact between most of the ensemble.

In my eyes, Jason Butler Harners ‘M’ was the highlight. Largely because he was the most animated character and drew the most laughs to break the tension that developed out of this long-time gay couple having a falling out. Cory Michael Smith, as John, and Amanda Quaid, as ‘W’, were also great, if not as consistently on-point as Harners. But again, score two points for discreet layering and another three points for everyone remaining in character amidst an audience breathing down on them (literally) and full theater lighting. That requires a certain technical skill that can’t be faked largely because of the focus it demands.

Just get yourself over to The Duke because, minor imperfections aside, Cock succeeds on all of its objectives. A storyline that draws you in, real emotion that happens in relationship turmoil, a run-through and dialogue that has enough surprise to avoid familiarity and substantial entertainment value. It also has an ensemble in solid form and a staging/direction that feels stripped down and minimal, yet more ambitious and boundary pushing (weirdly) by avoiding bombast or spectacle. In a show all about the nuance, subtlety and detailing, you do not want to miss a thing…or this show.

Tickets and photos provided by the production.

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