Sometimes, as the theme song from the movie Casablanca goes, A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. But the fundamental things of traditional romance definitely do not apply in Manbites Dog Theater's must-see production of The Shape of Things by American director, playwright, and screenwriter Neil LaBute (Bash). If it were a motion picture, The Shape of Things would be R-rated for language and brief nudity like LaBute's screenplays for the films In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty.
This disturbing drama about avant-garde art and four twentysomethings in love and in lust debuted in May 2001 in London. But it has since intrigued audiences and impressed critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Shakespeare & Originals founder and artistic director Jay O'Berski puts a lot of snap, crackle, and pop in his very smart and stylish staging of The Shape of Things. Set, lighting, and sound designer Lionel Mouse and costume designer Lissa Brennan provide a simple but versatile set and a visually striking wardrobe for the four college students or recent college graduates who comprise the show's dramatis personae. And videographer Erik Niemi's evocative videos not only provide smooth transitions from scene to scene, but also expand and deepen our knowledge of the show's characters and their relationship.
O'Berski gets passionate and highly polished performances from three of his four cast members. Vince Eisenson is excellent as the nerdy — and very, very needy — Adam, a somewhat overweight and under-groomed recent college graduate working a minimum-wage job as a sort of security guard at an art museum. When a drop-dead gorgeous art student named Evelyn (Blaine Barbee) shows up in tight leather pants and — improbably — takes an interest in Adam, he forgets his responsibility to the art museum and steps aside as she spray-paints a penis on a statue to protest a long-ago decision by bluestockings to conceal the statue's prodigious male organ behind a cluster of grapes.
After Adam and Evelyn — improbably — become a couple, she sets about to reshape him, from the very top of his head to the soles of his feet. At her urging, he changes his hair style, loses weight, acquires a brand-new hip wardrobe, trades in his glasses for contact lenses, and even gets a nose job to remove a barely noticeable lump.
One critic described The Shape of Things as a modern retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. If so, the character of Evelyn combines the roles of Eve and the Serpent, something that the Adam of The Shape of Things never suspects until Evelyn finally — and very, very publicly — reveals her ulterior motives in masterminding Adam's makeover.
Vince Eisenson is a little too thin to be completely believable as an overweight Adam carrying 25 or so extra pounds, but he captures the essence of the insecure, self-conscious and, yes, nerdy young man who just cannot believe that a real red-hot babe wants him for her boyfriend.
Blaine Barbee, on the other hand, is a real hottie, a flamboyantly dressed dark-haired beauty perfect for the part of Evelyn. Even knowing her secret agenda, there were probably some men in last Saturday night's audience who let her lead them down the primrose Garden (of Eden) path to public humiliation — if only they could experience the taste of her lips, the caress of her fingertips, etc.
Daniel Smith was terrific as Phillip, Adam's loudmouthed and utterly obnoxious former college roommate; but Meghan Valerio was less satisfactory as Phillip's fiancée Jenny, a girl who first liked Adam before the opportunistic Phillip alienated her affections from his droopy-drawered roommate. Smith may have chewed the scenery a bit, but Valerio's performance — and, perhaps, her character — is so colorless that it fades into the background.
The Shape of Things not only asks, What would you do for love? How far would you go to please a lover? But the play also asks, What is art? Does radically reshaping a fellow human being count as a work of art?
In the end, The Shape of Things is not so much a somewhat perverse modern version of the biblical story of Adam and Eve as it is a contemporary retelling of the Greek myth in which a confirmed bachelor, the sculptor Pygmalion, carves his perfect woman in ivory and falls in love his creation, the statue-come-to-life Galatea, only this time Galatea wields the chisel and Pygmalion gets cut down to size.
Manbites Dog Theater presents The Shape of Things Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 6-8 and Feb. 13-15, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 9 and 16, at 3:15 p.m. in Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343. http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.