Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: The Shape of Things

As a rule, I don’t go in much for seeing Fringe shows that aren’t original to Fringe; it doesn’t seem to be completely in the spirit of the festival, in my mind, to put on, say, one of Tennessee Williams’ short pieces, unless it’s quite obscure or you’ve put some sort of very new twist on it. With that thought in mind, I hesitated before purchasing my ticket to the Toronto Fringe incarnation of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. While perhaps not Williams-level canonical, LaBute’s work has reached a definite level of notoriety, and I’d likely have a chance to see the show at some point. On the other hand, I hadn’t seen the show and, besides reading “Bash,” hadn’t really overly-familiarized myself with the playwright. So in I went, standing behind a size-two young woman complaining about how she felt like a sausage in her dress and kind of wishing we were about to see LaBute’s Fat Pig instead, so she could experience irony. I leave the question to you: what role does well-known work being remounted have in the Fringe experience? In your Fringe experience? What role should it have?

LaBute has a reputation of controversial topics and harsh truths. The Shape of Things centres around questions of where art crosses the line, and hinges on the manipulative relationship between Adam (Christian Smith), a nebbishy undergrad studying English, and Evelyn (Jennifer Neales), the MFA art student he meets at the campus art gallery. It’s a unique and suitably charming meet-cute, featuring Evelyn’s graffiti-based crusade against a fig-leafed god statue meeting the very passive resistance of Adam’s campus security guard, who just doesn’t want to fill out any paperwork.

Evelyn is the love child of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Machiavelli.  The first thing Adam has to say to her is “you’ve stepped over the line,” which neatly telegraphs the rest of her action.  She seems to be the outsider in this “small-town college town” environment, which appears to have a surprisingly radical MFA arts program (though it may just be her). Adam’s other friends, the engaged Phillip (Brendan O’Reilley) and Jenny (Adrianna Prosser, whose character Phillip “stole” from Adam years ago), are more “salt-of-the-earth” than artsy types (with the exception of a quirky wedding choice that doesn’t seem to fit the rest of their personalities), though Phillip even feels the need to win arguments about art. Phillip and Jenny treat Adam’s “improvement” under Evelyn’s watchful eye (weight loss, clothing changes, more drastic surprises) with suspicion and renewed interest, respectively; The Shape of Things We Do For Love.

Though the ending twist of the play is telegraphed (at least to me) early on, the ending scene is still powerful, probably because the cast is so uniformly good. Smith manages to imbue Adam with an easy shy charm and has a very appealing natural delivery. The actor and production also has to contend with having to portray a real physical change over the course of the hour, which was a largely successful endeavour. He has plenty of chemistry with Neale’s Evelyn, who balances fire and ice adroitly, so that one can understand why Adam is “owned,” in his words, and at the same time never really trust her.  O’Reilly is great as the bro you outgrow but think of fondly, and Prosser gets one of the show’s standout moments (not to mention the best outfits) with her apology for not being “artistic” or “cool” enough, which is a message all of us navel-gazing Fringe diehards need to hear every once in a while; we need more Jennies at the Fringe.

LaBute’s dialogue is often sparkly and very entertaining, and even managed to overcome my initial “dear Lord, save us from the musings of English undergrads and MFA grad students” reservations, from my oh-so-worldly platform of having been both of these things five and two years ago, respectively. I was expecting far more offense than was delivered, but the playwright excels in mapping out both the platonic and romantic relationship games played between people.

The original productions of The Shape of Things featured oppressively loud music between the scenes, a soundscape designed, LaBute said, to prevent the audience from comparing notes, and, presumably, ruining the plot twist. (According to The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, Harold Pinter, another canonical writer with a show in this year’s Fringe, reportedly fled from the music before the show could even start.)  The sound design here, presumably from able director Alex Fields, is quite the opposite, with appealingly pretty, blue-tinged indie tunes bookending the show, and silences (maybe too silent) during scene changes to encourage a contemplative mood. I’m not sure The Shape of Things completely succeeds in its discussion of the intersection between provocation and art, but in this production, it’s a worthwhile contemplation.


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