“Cock” aka “The Cock Fight Play” presented by the Phoenix Theatre is one of those plays that will keep you wondering about its outcome long after you’ve seen it. Also, during a time when a public discourse surrounding issues related to LGTB civil rights, marriage equality and sexual identity in general is at a fever pitch, British playwright Mike Bartlett’s searing comedy-drama couldn’t be more relevant. Considering that it opened Thursday during Pride Week in Indianapolis, it’s also very timely.
Seeing “Cock” on the Livia and Steve Russell Stage is worth the price of the ticket alone, just to experience the space, itself, which has been converted from its proscenium configuration into an arena-style one, just for this play.
Of course the play’s story couldn’t be more unconventional, not to mention deeply absorbing, and often funny, due to the sort of humor that causes nervous laughter when one is removed from one’s comfort zone. It’s about a young man, John, who leaves his longtime boyfriend M, only to return later to shock the proceedings with the news that he has fallen for a woman, W. Adding further to an already unorthodox situation is the boyfriend’s father F who is invited to an uber-awkward and tension-filled dinner, to support his son, who may or may not be the person John is pressured to choose over W, by M and and his dad.
Making this a must see for any serious theater goer, or otherwise, is Phoenix producing director Bryan Fonseca’s expert direction of the piece, which is among his best work during a long tenure at the theater he founded.
The knock out cast, played warring characters who thrust and parry on the set’s bare stage for ninety minutes, sans intermission, in scenes separated by blackouts. The ensemble included Chris Roe as John, Scot Greenwell as M, Sarah McGee as W and Brad Griffith as F.
They all demonstrated excellent timing in their delivery of Bartlett’s often biting Noel Coward-like sharp dialogue. Given the play’s U.K. setting, all of the actors do a reasonable job of affecting British accents with M and F speaking proper English and W and John’s suggesting a working class background.
During sex scenes between John and M, and John and W, which are only suggested but not shown, employing Fonseca’s ingenious staging, the actors were also effective in conveying eroticism and sparking one’s imagination to envision sexual acts without them actually simulating them.
Greenwell, a Phoenix regular, was forceful in his portrayal of M, a successful stockbroker. A browbeating, controlling, often condescending partner in the relationship, M uses emotional blackmail to convince his younger boyfriend to give up W and stay with him.
Chris Roe, who shone in Phoenix’s recent production of “Spun,” is very convincing as week-willed, presumably bisexual John, who remains likeable despite the fact that his wishy-washy indecisiveness is so maddening. Though annoying, one can’t help also be sympathetic with his character’s refusal to choose between being gay or straight or be identified by any label.
Making her Phoenix debut, Sarah McGee, who has mostly performed in community theater, was outstanding in her role as W—no doubt her most challenging role to date. Possessing a natural stage presence and ability, she more than held her own against her more experienced colleagues. Ultimately, the photogenic McGee was thoroughly convincing as the confident and assertive, yet vulnerable, divorced teacher’s assistant who pursues John despite the fact that winning him is an uphill battle, considering his baggage.
Brad Griffith, formerly an active member of the Indy's acting community, returned recently from Chicago just in time to turn in a strong performance as F. He is father to M and an open minded parent who supports his son. He also support M's relationship, and also loves M’s boyfriend, John, so much so that he confronts W at the dinner party summit during which he unsuccessfully tries to impugn her character and intentions.
The aforementioned transformed space at the Phoenix in which “Cock” is presented, is actually, in total, with ring included, designer Jeff Martin’s entire set. It's accented with bare light bulbs encased in sculpture-like pieces that look like wood crates, hanging from above, covered with barbed wire-like material. Martin’s stylized cockpit in which the blood sport of cockfights between two roosters is held is a tour de force creation.
Research indicates that younger generations are less interested in assigning labels to sexual identity, with conclusions being drawn that loving another person for who they are as opposed to what gender they are being tantamount. As mores and values continue to change and as our society continues to evolve in its attitudes about sexual identity, Bartlett’s thoughtful and stimulating play compels us all to examine just how comfortable we are in our own skins.
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