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Cock — Theatre Exile

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Benjamin Lovell, Mary Tuomanen, John Jarboe & Wes Haskell. Photo: Paola Nogueras

In keeping with the name of Mike Bartlett’s play, Theatre Exile director Deborah Block stages “Cock” at if it were a fight in which its participants must jockey for advantageous position, if not compete to a metaphorical death.

     Colin McIlvane’s set is a handsome hard-wood hexagon, planks polished like you’d expect the floor in one of the character’s homes to be. Besides being stylish and serviceable, it reminds one of a pit where battling birds might be let loose on one another. From the hexagon’s corners, adversaries, even those who are supposed to be friends and lovers, can spar, parry, peck, and claw at strong dramatic angles or face off squarely, either way keeping “Cock’s” tension taut and conflicts fresh.

    Block’s production stirs you to remain alert and fixed on the action, as Bartlett’s fast-paced, confrontational script requires. Energy radiates through Theatre Exile’s compact South Philadelphia space, and you, as the audience, can’t help getting involved in the proceedings or taking sides as “Cock’s” often comic, often biting verbal combat ensues.

     You would well advised not to wager on any of the combatants because their, and your, allegiances may change with reckless abandon during the play. The characters often take a civilized approach —  They are, after all, British. — to their quarreling and maneuvering  to be alpha dog. The fighting looks clean, but at least two of Bartlett’s four characters have strategic moves they can exercise at whim to throw an opponent off-balance, and they don’t hesitate to employ them, at times with relish. Block and the Exile company know their business, and they’ll keep you on edge as they go about it.

      “Cock’s” focal character, John, has the least guile. John doesn’t have to be strategic. He is the cause of all of the conflict. John is man who does not know how to commit and doesn’t see why, given his confusion, he should be compelled to do so. He cannot, despite being able to list and weigh evidence before him, make a crucial decision about with whom he wants to live or with whom he wants to love.

       John’s dilemma is not exactly uncommon. Such ambivalence has been an ongoing source of drama for centuries. It’s just that the choice John has to make seems potentially clearer.  One of the combatants vying to win his affections is a man, and the other is a woman. Usually, biology or preference do the selecting in such cases, but John is an “and” instead of “or” kind of guy. He doesn’t understand why he is beholden to choose or why both the man and the woman with whom he’s romantically entangled want him to make up his mind, if only so they can move on with their lives. John not only fails to perceive that people expect you to choose one gender to love, forgoing the other, but can’t figure out why mates of either sex expect him to choose them exclusively, relinquishing all others.

      I had an occasion in my life when a male partner asked if I’d mind if he dated a woman at the same time we were proceeding through life as a couple. I surprised him by saying, “No,” not because I object to pansexuality — I don’t — but because if we were to be a pair, I wanted our relationship to be exclusive. I wanted to be his paramour to the exception of all other beings on Earth — and beyond — and told him he should expect and require the same from me. Other arrangements might be fine, but if we agree we’re a couple, the mathematical set governing our relationship had to be a closed one consisting solely of 1 + 1.

      That is also the attitude of John’s boyfriend, roommate, and sex partner, simply called ‘M,’ presumably for Man, and the abiding opinion of ‘W,’ presumably for Woman, the person John meets on the rebound after his relationship with ‘M’ suffers a crise, and John opts to leave their shared domicile, a flat owned by ‘M,’ at about the same instance ‘M’ threatens to throw John out.

      The fourth character in “Cock” is ‘M’s’ father, called ‘F,’  enlisted to join the fray as a sort of reinforcement if ‘M’ is attacked by ‘W,’ who John described, inaccurately, as being big and manly. Bartlett also uses ‘F’ as a kind of raisonneur , someone who puts a traditional, respectful, and rational perspective on the situation at hand.

      Even before John has a chance to meet ‘W,’ ‘M’ sets the ball of contention rolling. In an uncomfortable but entertaining opening scene, ‘M’ rags John about almost everything. John, he says, can’t cook. John’s clothes look disheveled. John can’t manage to get to Square Two without a map, and maybe not even then.

     John becomes the sympathetic one in the scene. He takes ‘M’s’ barbs well, sometimes defending himself, sometimes by admitting his deficiency, and sometimes by just being befuddled by ‘M’s’ constant barrage of criticism and rebuke.

      ‘M’ is always on the attack and seems to enjoy lording things over his less articulate, less argumentative lover. ‘M’ explains at one point he thinks of John and him as brothers and, as with brothers, their relationship includes  a level of rivalry and a habit of trading light insults, affectionate teasing insults used to needle one for faults and foibles and, possibly, change one for the better.

      The problem is John doesn’t insult back, except to imply ‘M’ is a bully. ‘M’ has all of the stinging language and all of the meanness in their relationship. He also has his share of logic, but when you see how much his denigration wounds John, you feel somewhat sorry for John. John seems like a victim even when you can’t help believing ‘M’s’ comments and jokes about him have merit.

      The badinage between the men is Pinteresque, with clipped unfinished sentences, meanings gleaned without being said, and  an atmosphere of tension and, perhaps, violence, at least in temperament , lying just under the surface.

      As with Pinter, you feel as if you are watching a game in progress, a life game with a lot at stake. Bartlett’s dialogue and Block’s staging enhance that feeling. Overtones of Pinter and gamesmanship increase when you realize that John, ‘M,’ and the other characters are not going to change costumes to match clothes Bartlett says they are wearing or have props or furniture to literalize the settings Bartlett depicts. Those niceties are left to the audience’s imagination, and to Block’s credit, we fill in the blanks and make the invisible appear, knowing instinctively how an outfit, table setting, or flower arrangement looks without seeing it. The games — the one between the characters on stage and between the director and audience in terms of supplying what isn’t shown — are afoot, and an enjoyable, engrossing affair they are.

     In the Theatre Exile production, ‘M’ has particular allure. Even though ‘M’ obviously baits and bruises John, to the extent anyone can really bruise the obtuse John, and can be quite bratty and snide to ‘W,’ actor John Jarboe gives him a wily appeal. Jarboe takes such pleasure in revealing ‘M’s’ naughtiness and childish need to have his way, we like ‘M’ in spite of ourselves. ‘M’ is always up for any game and is a master and moving everything to his advantage. Jarboe, bright eyed, foxily lithe, quick to cut with his sword, and equally quick to gaze witheringly in umbrage at anyone who slashes back, turns ‘M’ into a life force, easily the most complex and interesting of the characters, with his witty, assaultive portrayal. ‘M’ may be the least pleasant person on stage, but he is also the one with the most talents and accomplishments. He can cook. He is successful at business, brokering, we’re never told of what. He keeps his ducks in a row. The rub is one of those ducks is John. ‘M’ wants him to live up to a standard, the relaxed, less ambitious John may not care to meet. He also regards John as his, a possession of sorts that ‘M,’ since he’s attained John, intends to keep as his. Jarboe conveys all of ‘M’s’ traits with remarkable aplomb. He exudes snobbery and self-proclaimed superiority, yet Jarboe makes you like him.

      ‘W’ becomes ‘M’s’ obstacle and foil. Once John leaves ‘M,’ he becomes attracted to ‘W,’ who is in what Kurt Vonnegut would refer to as John’s wampeter, a space wherein he intersects with another individual over and over again. John sees ‘W’ in the tube on his way to work mornings. They take the same route from the Underground to their jobs. Often they stop the same places at the same time for coffee or lunch. With this kind of kismet occurring, John and ‘W’ eventually speak and find they have a lot more in common than logistics, that they make a compatible couple. ‘W’ is kind and assuring where ‘M’ is prickly and critical. ‘W’ is tender  and soothing where ‘M’ is rough and baiting. In one of his salvoes aimed at ‘M,’ John even declares ‘W’ is the more satisfactory sex partner. ‘W’ seems so clearly better to and for John than ‘M’ is, you wonder why any conflict arises.

      John causes the conflict because he is nervous about being aligned with a woman. ‘W’ is the first woman with whom John has been involved. She is the first with whom he’s had sex. Her vagina fascinates him as much as his and ‘W’s’ carefree ease as a couple. John is so surprised, he returns to ‘M’ and asks to resume their relationship, including living together. ‘M’ and ‘W’ know about each other but can only judge one another by what John told them. Remember, he tells ‘M’ that ‘W’ is manly, an idea one look at the pertly feminine Mary Tuomanen dispels.

       All is to be resolved at a dinner party at ‘M’s’ flat, to which John will bring ‘W.’ Both ‘M’ and ‘W’ want all to be settled at that party. ‘M’ invites his father, ‘F,’ to help him if he needs support. John continues to be noncommittal even as the rivals for his frankly unworthy person battle for his hand. Bartlett, Block, and the Exile ensemble make this subtly savage encounter sublime in terms of comedy and individual acting.

     John Jarboe’s strong contribution has been discussed. His ‘M’ is lusciously bad, but Jarboe makes a case for why one may prefer him to the more positive ‘W.’

      Wes Haskell embodies John in all his jellylike lack of resolve. Haskell wears a look of constant confusion on his face. John wants what he wants without compromise or consequences. He also wants it without enmity or effort. John is like a cork who floats blithely from one situation to another and doesn’t see how things in life relate or assimilate. While ‘M’ is all confidence and assurance, John just ambles along , getting by. Haskell lets you see all of John’s coasting and wavering. He plays John’s fundamental decency and friendliness while also conveying his inability to choose or make a commitment. Haskell’s is a good, natural performance that blends well with the deliberate cast Jarboe gives ‘M’ and the maturity Tuomanen displays as ‘W.’

       Tuomanen makes “W’ the picture of normality. She is a strong British woman, one who enjoys her work, who considers greater challenges for later in her life, and who enjoys her romance with John. In Tuomanen’s hands, ‘W’ is not intimidated by ‘M’ or made to feel inferior  because ‘M’ cooks divinely and has such a wonderful, tastefully furnished apartment. She is a forthright person who knows who she is, what she wants, and why she could make John happier. Tuomanen keeps ‘W’ a frustrating opponent to ‘M,’ one who can answer any of his boasts or disparagements. And one who is just as resolved to have what she wants as ‘M’ is. Haskell helps matters by being loveable in his neediness. As Bartlett writes his part, you wonder why anyone would want to have John as a partner. Then Haskell comes along and makes his ordinariness sweet and endearing, so he becomes a worthy rope in ‘M’s’ and ‘W’s’ tug of war.

      Ben Lovell makes ‘F’ into one of the wisest and most loyal of the paternal breed. His performance is so natural, you’d think he walked off London streets and into his son’s messy situation. ‘F’ presents reasonable arguments about homosexuality and relationships between partners, and Lovell delivers his advice with charm and fatherly affection.

     “Cock” runs through Sunday, November 17 at Theatre Exile, 13th and Reed Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are7:30 p.m. Thursday  8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $40 with discounts for seniors, students, and industry members (people in the theater). They can be ordered by calling 215-218-4022 or going online to www.theatreexile.org.

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This entry was posted on November 9, 2013 by in Theater Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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