Get past its title – excellent performances across the board propel ‘Cock’

 A theatre review by John Busbee / The Culture Buzz / January 18, 2015

Photo: Adam Bartelt

Please don’t let “Cock shock” keep you from experiencing this superbly acted StageWest Theatre Company production. In the playwright’s native land, England, cock is a friendly form of address, used especially by a man talking to another man. America seems to have taken its usage to lower levels, unless one is talking about his prized barnyard fowl. Regardless, this show transports Central Iowa audiences to StageWest’s defining roots: cutting edge, an Iowa premier and exceptionally well written. It also demonstrates how StageWest achieved its leadership role in high production values for its special brand of theatrical productions.

Upon entering the Kum & Go Theater, everyone is immediately plunged into a carefully crafted environment, thanks to the scenic artistry of Tim Wisgerhof. With three murals of majestic roosters anchoring the other corners of the space, the dynamic cubes, steps and platform create a malleable landscape upon which the actors perform. With green dominating the color scheme – envy foreshadowing? – this abstract painting of the set provides a fluid, interpretational space for the action to unfold. This environment, coupled with Josh Jepson’s invasive sound design, captures the audience before the first line. Add seating on all four sides, only three rows deep, and an intimate, almost unwilling participation, interaction with the audience is inevitable. And, immensely rewarding for those willing to savor such theatrical experiences.

Wisgerhof and the rest of the production team work marvelously with director Todd Buchacker. This arguably is Buchacker’s strongest work as a director, adding to his already fine resume. Casting a show like Cock is like preparing a superb dish; it takes the proper blend of ingredients to make the whole excel. His four-star cast features Jordan Jepson as John, Jason Bohon as M, Angel Stettler as W, and Maxwell Schaeffer as F. This is one of the best ensembles assembled in recent memory. Add visionary direction from Buchacker and strong production values from Wisgerhof, Jim Trenberth (lighting), Josh Jepson (sound), Sara Jablon (costumes) and the rest of the team, and the live performing arts experience delivers with heart, soul, humor and a mesmerizing, ever-encroaching sense of inevitability in its story. The spatial design coupled with the story arc inexorably draws the audience into unmistakable feeling of witnessing a cockfight unfolding.

Cock tells the story of a gay couple who, during a brief break-up, one of the partners, John, falls in love with a woman. Taking the timeless love triangle theme and adding a modern edge to it, playwright Mike Bartlett delivers a series of cerebral punches, tickles and twists. With a penchant for sharp dialogue and situational interplay, Bartlett gives his characters time to punch and counterpunch through a staccato-paced, no-intermission whirlwind of relationship dynamics.

Cock blasts out of the gate in a series of scenes, briefly separated by quick blackouts, between John and his partner, M. Their dodge-parry-thrust relationship seems to end; John is drawn into an unexpected heterosexual relationship with a woman he has seen on a daily basis (their routes to work cross), forcing John’s true ambiguity to grow. John returns to M, in whose flat he has been living, confesses his new love, which spins into planning a dinner meeting between all three. John doesn’t learn until that fateful night that M has invited his father to join the fray. After all, John had described his female lover as “manly,” and M didn’t want to be at a disadvantage.

Jepson’s John is richly layered, bouncing from childish to petulant to smitten with the unshackled ease of someone whose base problem is an inability to make a commitment, any commitment. As M, Bohon deftly embraces his role, pleading, commanding and often piercing John’s protective shields with laser-efficient results. Providing the final side of the love triangle, Stettler’s W brings a robust, confident energy to her role, adding boldness and a smoldering seductivity to a well-honed arsenal of interpersonal tools. Ratcheting up the energy, dynamics and tension to higher levels when he enters the final dinner scene, veteran actor Schaeffer takes the action to even more enticing complexities. Each has his or her moments of dominance; each shows his or her flaws, which are liberally exploited by the others. Bartlett’s representational dialogue, rather than using reality in some explicit scenes, heightens the experience. Dialect coach Ann Woldt did a fine job helping this talented quartet nail down their British dialects, an important element for the scattering of English references in the script. This also provides a more honest journey into Bartlett’s tale as John wallows in his own indecisiveness, expecting a guarantee from life, while being pulled multiple directions by M and W, both who think they have the power and influence to mold John into their ideal image of him. John is resolute in his obstinance, however, leaving the ending of this play with questions the audience will have to answer.

This production of Cock lets all who wisely get tickets for the show to understand how it won the coveted Laurence Olivier Award. Some will see this as a story about manipulation, others about the most frustratingly noncommittal person ever imagined. Everyone will see traits of people they know in these four characters, and such masterfully delivered honesty about humanity is always a rewarding experience. Only one weekend left to catch Cock. Grab the opportunity.