StageWest’s play isn’t about roosters

Theatre Review by Michael Morain, Des Moines Register mmorain@dmreg.com 3:45 p.m. CST January 19, 2015

Photo: Adam Bartelt/Special to the Register

When theater critics for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reviewed earlier productions of Mike Bartlett’s funny, feisty new play, neither paper chose to publish its actual title. They called it “The Cockfight Play” instead.

But here in plainspoken Iowa, let’s just use its real name — “Cock” — and be done with it, OK? Cockapoo. Cockamamie. Cock-a-doodle-doo.

And while we’re at it, let me beat you to the obvious joke: It’s about 90 minutes long, without an intermission.

So. Moving on. The StageWest show at the Des Moines Social Club is much smarter than its gimmicky title suggests. It’s a little raw and little racy, but more than that, it’s quick, thanks in part to director Todd Buchacker’s choice to keep the four-member cast circling one another like roosters in a pen (or, come to think of it, the 3X wrestlers who often pummel each other in the same theater).

The actors go at it in a minimal, in-the-round arena designed by Tim Wisgerhof, whose gorgeous painted portraits of roosters perch above three of the room’s four corners. Their beady eyes stare down on the fracas below.

This particular fracas is a territorial one, in which a man named John (Jordan Jepson) falls for a woman named W (Angela Stettler) and surprises himself by taking her, quite successfully, to bed. He then tries to analyze his sudden new fling with help from a man named M (Jason Bohon), who happens to be John’s longtime boyfriend.

“I need some straightening out,” John says, prompting a withering look from M.

It’s worth noting that the play premiered in 2009, and the characters subscribe to the prevailing theory that sexual orientation is a genetic characteristic rather than a choice. John was born with conflicting desires, whether he likes them or not.

But how he chooses to pursue them, well, that’s where things get interesting. How should he dress? How should he walk or talk? With whom should he spend his time? Why does he want to live with M but make love to W? In other words, how does his sexuality define his sense of self?

Who is he?

“Some people might think you were scrawny,” W tells him, “but I think you’re like a picture drawn with a pencil. I like it. You haven’t been colored in.”

Jepson is a fine actor, and his character’s indecision is at times so paralyzing that you have to feel for the guy. He’s such a “wet fish,” as M calls him, that sometimes you wonder what the others see in him.

And sometimes you don’t wonder at all. Even though they’re fully clothed and standing a dozen feet apart, John and W’s first amorous exchange is the most convincing sex scene I’ve seen on a local stage since the actress made similar noises in “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” which StageWest produced a few years ago.

Stettler is an unusually intelligent performer — sharp, nimble, vulnerable — and Bohon makes a worthy sparring partner. Both are tender with John but tough with each other, pecking and clawing and scraping to the end, during the world’s most awkward dinner party. M’s father, called simply F (the excellent Maxwell Schaeffer), tries to keep the peace but fails.

Without giving anything away, the story ends the only way it can, with John caught in the middle. His decision to present himself as a straight or gay man, according to society’s expectations, muddies the more basic dilemma of choosing between two people. It’s unclear if anyone wins.

‘Cock’

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Des Moines Social Club, 900 Cherry St.

TICKETS: $25-$30 for adults, with half-price seats for seniors and students.

INFO: www.stagewestiowa.com

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