The Shape of Things

The Shape of Things
By Neil LaBute. Lambert House Enterprises. Flight Path Theatre, Marrickville. January 8 – 31, 2021.

LaBute’s play, written in 2001, has lost none of its astute ability to manipulate the audience. Nor does it lose the power of its final, disturbing scenes. LaBute craftily beguiles the audience with what appears to be a love story, albeit one that appears to condone the power of one person to hurt another in the name of art. In doing so, he raises such issues as the real nature of romance, friendship, personal identity, body image, honesty in relationships – and just what can be called ‘art’.

Director Les Solomon has used a minimalist set, realising the strength of the play lies in the dialogue, the interaction between the characters and the energy they generate. Framed in white, the bare stage becomes, with the aid of simply placed props – seats, a small table, a bicycle, a quilt, two pillows – the campus of a small-town university in mid-west USA. Here Adam, an English Lit student, finds Evelyn, a fine arts student, about to deface a sculpture in the museum where he works part-time. Unbeknown to him, they have met before, and Evelyn has manipulated this meeting, ostensibly to get to know him better – even romantically – and then to use him mercilessly.

In the course of the play, Adam falls under the spell that Evelyn weaves. Succumbing to her suggestion he begins to change his image, changing his hair, getting fitter, losing weight, giving up his favourite jacket – and eventually his best friends, Jenny and Phillip. All four characters are clearly written – and Solomon works carefully with his actors, using LaBute’s sentence construction and language to develop their characters and their relationship. The way they use accent, timing and gesture sets the play specifically in America and shows Solomon’s appreciation of the nuances in LaBute’s writing. Their economic use of space and movement shows the strength of Solomon’s directing experience.

Georgia Brindley is persuasively calculating as Evelyn. She fixes the audience in her sights from the first moments of the play – and Solomon builds on this, allowing the audience to see glimpses of cunning in her eyes as she shrewdly evaluates the effectiveness of her suggestions to Adam. Evelyn isn’t a likeable character and Brindley finds little gradations of tone, stance, expression and gesture that emphasise her callous ruthlessness – especially in the final scenes where her heartless cruelty and contempt shocks and appals.

Adam, on the other hand, is a gentle soul. He is shy, a little insecure, and romantically inexperienced until Evelyn begins his ‘remake’. Samson Alston finds all those characteristics in his first encounter with Evelyn. Anxious to do his duty as a museum attendant, but a little diffident, his approach to Evelyn is hesitant, giving her the opportunity to manipulate the situation and assert power. As their relationship –and his love for Evelyn – grows, he seems to become more confident and self-possessed. But Alston manages to retain the naïve transparency of Adam. It is there in subtle, thoughtful pauses, a telling frown, a tentative reaction, and his instinctive trust and belief in others, especially his flatmate, Phillip and Jenny, Phillip’s fiancée.

Unlike Adam, Phillip is brash, loud and upbeat. Tayman Jamae finds all this in the Phillip he portrays. He is fast, punchy, cheekily aggressive, over-confident. He belittles Adam constantly and in so doing plays right into Evelyn’s hands. It is interesting to see how he shows his confused reactions to her ‘management’ of him.

Jenny is his antithesis. Open, guileless, she is the typical ‘girl next door’ and Olivia Hall Smith plays her with ingenuous frankness. Her Jenny is anxious to please, trusting, easily taken in – and easily hurt. She treads lightly, sits elegantly, her movement accentuating Phillip’s hustle, Adam’s hesitancy and Evelyn’s self-assured exploitation of every situation.

Each actor brings out the brutal truths of this play – and the many comments it makes about society and human cruelty. With LaBute, Solomon and his cast trick the audience into being part of a story that is far deeper and dangerous than it first appears – and leaves them wondering about the damaging effects of persuasiveness, power, control, manipulation, exploitation …

Carol Wimmer

Photographer: David Hooley

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