Author Neil LaBute is known, and respected, for pushing the envelope with his plays. The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre generally produces plays that are comparatively safe in theme and style. So it’s a somewhat surprising thing to see LaBute’s The Shape of Things on the barn-theatre stage – and, I think, a very good thing, too. Because while some of the play’s elements are offensive, its central themes of art, relationships, and what we're willing to do for love are well worth examining. And happily, they're examined here in a production that is also thoughtfully staged and performed.
While talking with director Chris White during the intermission of Friday night’s performance, he mentioned changes he made to the script – removing expletives, especially – to temper it a bit. In so doing, he’s made LaBute’s material more palatable for patrons who might otherwise not take in LaBute’s impressively thoughtful play about four university students whose relationships intertwine emotionally and romantically, and who all wind up (some unwittingly) involved one of the student’s thesis projects. Yet as far as I could tell, White has not damaged the show’s tone, nor the depth of its themes. LaBute’s misanthropic message is still quite clear.
In staging The Shape of Things, White has assembled an impressive cast of actors quite familiar to Quad Cities theatre-goers, two of whom are rarely seen delivering prose (rather than verse) dialogue. In truth, of the many plays in which I’ve seen Maggie Woolley perform, I can only recall one – the Playcrafters Barn Theatre’s Moon Over Buffalo, staged earlier this year – in which she wasn’t speaking in verse. It’s actually quite refreshing to hear her speak in prose, which better reveals her talent for reciting lines as if the words first crossed her mind just at that moment – as though she’s speaking her own thoughts, rather than those in a script. It’s truly impressive work, as Woolley seemingly embodies the character of Evelyn, rather than merely portraying it.
Adam Overberg, who plays Phillip, is another actor whom I’ve more often heard performing in iambic pentameter or some other form of verse, usually while portraying a hero or other noble character (such as in Genesius Guild’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III this past summer.) Here, Overberg is no hero, conveying – and conveying quite well – the hotheaded, self-centered nature of a man easily angered by ideals different from his own.
Matt Mercer, as The Shape of Things' Adam, is impressive in his physical portrayal of the character’s insecurity and self-doubt, and later his growing confidence – qualities all readily apparent in Mercer’s body language. His characterization of Adam’s insecurity is a healthy part of what makes Adam so endearing, so pitiable, and so relatable.
The Shape of Things marks only the second time I’ve seen Cara DeMarlie on stage, the first being in Richmond Hill’s A Turn for the Nurse earlier this year, but I’m fast becoming a fan. While strong-willed and funny in the previous production, in this one she is much more meek, taking moments to show her character thinking before speaking, and effectively conveying doubt about what’s happening around her and to her. Compared to DeMarlie’s work in A Turn for the Nurse, this portrayal of a less self-assured woman shows that she has great range as an actress, one I’m eager to see more of in future productions.
I also wouldn’t mind seeing more of LaBute’s works on the Richmond Hill Players’ stage. With The Shape of Things, it’s good to see the theatre pushing boundaries with more provocative material - yet also doing so with a play that’s provocative to make a point, rather than being provocative for provocation’s sake.
For tickets and information, call (309)944-2244 or visit RHPlayers.com.