THE Shape of Things is another of Neil LaBute's clever storytelling traps. Debuting as a play in 2001 and turned into a film directed by LaBute himself in 2003, it presents itself as the simplest of boy-meets-girl romantic comedy setups. But that's just one of many false bottoms in a story that ratchets up the emotional intensity with every scene, and in the end is as brutal as any of LaBute's more obviously vicious attacks on the dubious niceties of interpersonal relations.
All of the narrative and thematic sleight of hand is played out in the entanglements between two couples, so the cast has got to be top-notch to pull it off. Thankfully, Renegade Theatre Experiment's new production is driven by four excellent performances, which not only nail LaBute's ambitious agenda but even tweak the characters to the extent that those who've previously seen the film or the play must check out what's been done with it here.
For those who haven't seen it, I personally think this is a better way to first experience this play than even LaBute's version of his own work. He tends to go for harder, more cynical performances, an approach that's less successful with The Shape of Things because it telegraphs too much about the characters and drains them of the sympathy they require to earn real investment from the audience. However, RTE director Kathleen Normington has wisely taken a different tack, emphasizing exactly the kind of naturalistic, vulnerable qualities that make the characters in a real romantic comedy work. When things start to get ugly, it makes it that much more tragic—and powerful.
To start off, there's Robert Campbell as Adam. Working as a security guard in a museum, he encounters Evelyn, played by Alika U. Spencer, about to deface a statue. She gets him into a conversation about the purity of art, he gets her phone number spray-painted onto his jacket. Mixing the mojo of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christian Slater, Campbell convincingly portrays both the shy sad-sack Adam we're introduced to at the beginning, and the increasingly hip and confident Adam who seems to thrive once he has Evelyn's attention.
Spencer brings warmth and intrigue to a character that's too easy to play cold and stilted. It's possible to draw an alternative set of conclusions about her mysterious and strident artist character after watching her interpretation.
Joshua Marx plays Philip, Adam's friend and former roommate, a blowhard broseph who clashes with Evelyn. He provides the comic, over-the-top delivery, but adds sincerity. And Caitlin Dissinger as Philip's fiancÚ (and Adam's longtime crush) Jenny has maybe the most difficult role of all. Jenny has to be somewhat of an overly traditional, and not overly interesting character, with a hint of deeper possibilities. It's not easy to do. Gretchen Mol's performance in the film, for instance, is way too shrill. Dissinger wisely takes the opposite approach; her Jenny is genuinely, hopelessly nice, and there's something instantly recognizable and authentic in the way she lets the character's complications slip out.
The Shape of Things is the best I've yet seen from RTE; it's riveting theater that's a successful experiment in every way, and shouldn't be missed.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 21 at the Historic Hoover Theatre, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $18/$20; 408.351.4440.
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