note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
It’s rare when a small, local community theater can present such compelling fare, that members of the audience respond in knee-jerk fashion - as though they are part of the production on stage - hollering epithets to the play’s characters for their unseemly behavior. Then, too, at Winthrop Playmakers‘ polished production of Neil LaBute’s socially shocking, edgy play, “The Shape of Things,” the entire audience was captivated by the stirring performances of four talented actors who are appearing for the first time at the Playhouse, in its cabaret theater. Lead actress Evelyn Howe is commanding in every scene.
Through Mark Usher’s intense direction that leaves no room for error every second on stage, Howe, Will Todisco, Kurt Lusas and Becca Leighton perform magnificently, their comic and dramatic timing impeccably realistic. LaBute’s play has one shocking scene after another, not just because it’s an irreverently adult production laden with sex and explicit, raw language, but also its psychologic overtones. The characters play manipulative mind games and deceit in rat-a-tat fashion that explodes on the small, cleverly designed stage (thanks to Nathan Fogg and crew).
Because the venue is small, and the audience is seated U-shaped near the stage, the interplay, especially during the final scenes is riveting, especially when Todisco, Leighton and Lusas sit among the audience.
The plot, a story of how far one would go for love and for art’s sake, involves a shy, nerdy college student named Adam (Will Todisco), who is employed as a hapless security guard at a museum. He also works immediately afterward at a video store to pay his student loans. He is a junior English literature student who quotes Dickens, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde with blushing ease. When he encounters flamboyant graduate art student Evelyn Ann Thompson (Evelyn Howe), who is working on her thesis project, and she defiantly insists on defacing a nude statue’s genitals with spray paint as a protest against the museum’s standards of modesty, Adam’s entire life suddenly changes. Evelyn lures him, challenges him, toying with his sense of responsibility, his self-effacing sincerity and honesty, while molding, manipulating and improving him into a heightened self image and more daring, confident, handsomer image. She also alienates Adam’s best friends - good-looking, egotistical, mouthy Phil (Kurt Lusas), who belittles and embarrasses Adam every chance he gets, and Phil’s sweet, down-to-earth fiancee, Jenny (Becca Leighton).
The play ends surprisingly, followed immediately by an equally surprising, triumphant epilogue, if you will, that leaves the audience speechless and spellbound.
The Playmakers have added their own fantastic nuances to LaBute’s “The Shape of Things,” enhancing its dramatic effect. During blackouts, between scenes, the deft, fast-moving stage crew fills several background mounted large, empty picture frames with poignant, representative photos. Nathan Fogg’s costumes highlight Adam’s metamorphosis, from bumbling caterpillar to butterfly; and Aaron Rainey-Spence’s lighting and Tom McCartney and Mark Usher’s sound design, including contemporary, pulsating musical interludes between scenes, heighten the tension.
Although a few senior citizens were overtly offended by some of the language and gestures, they - along with the rest of us - were entranced by this ambitious production. The Playmakers deserve kudos for stepping out of their music theater comfort zone to bring stirring dramatic fare here.
BOX INFO: Two-act, 2-1/2-hour adult play, written by Neil LaBute, directed by Mark Usher, appearing Feb. 19-21, Friday, Saturday, at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m., Tickets are $18; seniors, students, $15; at the door, $20/$17. Call 617-539-1175 or visit .