Shaping Up Nicely

The Shape of Things, presented by the Loose Affiliation of Artists. At Center Stage Theater, Thursday, September 28.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer

They may be loose in name, but there’s nothing sloppy about the Loose Affiliation of Artists (LAA), the five-strong, five-month-old theater company whose debut performance opened at Center Stage last Thursday. Michael Conrad Jr., Brendan Fleming, Joanne Lubeck, Sara Martinovich, and Kate Paulsen’s democratically run company is off to a very promising start with their triumphant staging of Neil LaBute’s dark and discomforting drama The Shape of Things. The show is really Fleming’s baby, although Martinovich directed the work.

“When I first read the play, I really wanted to speak the words — they’re just so good,” Fleming told me after the show. He’s right that LaBute’s language — so incisive, arresting and succinct — is a major part of the production’s strength. But words alone couldn’t carry off the kind of conquest LAA achieved. These are clearly five very gifted artists — not only as actors, but also as directors and writers — who are sophisticated enough to tackle the psychological and theoretical complexities that suffuse LaBute’s work. The Shape’s plot alone is enough to make one queasy: An art major at a small Midwestern college decides to use a hapless museum security guard as the unwitting human subject of her senior thesis project, molding and manipulating him in what becomes a study of seduction, coercion, and deceit. Lubeck’s Evelyn was so utterly beguiling, disturbed, and dangerous that she actually scared me. Fleming, as Adam, was putty in her hands, ready to eat the proverbial apple and then some.

As Phillip, Michael Conrad was infuriatingly macho, while Kate Paulsen portrayed his deeply innocent, sincere, and frustrated fiancée perfectly. A lesser production might have made caricatures of the ditsy blond, the clueless nerd, the conniving bitch, but LAA staged them sympathetically, thus treating LaBute’s work with the respect it deserves.

The play’s layering of lies upon lies is deeply fascinating. When the truth is finally revealed, you want to start from the beginning again immediately, retracing the evidence you only half realized the first time around. Ultimately, The Shape of Things is a commentary on the nature of art itself. It’s Adam who raises the worthy question of whether a given work of art is “really saying something, or just needing attention.” It’s obvious which side of that divide this play and this production occupy.

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