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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