By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
To paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment about Jane Austen, playwright Mike Bartlett would dig up Thornton Wilder and beat him with his own shinbone. Defunkt Theatre is putting on Bartlett’s play Cock through November 15.
Cock is no Our Town. It’s a love triangle – two men and the woman who comes between them – that hammers out dialogue with the intensity of a Beethoven symphony. There’s no moment of rest for the actors or audience: the air is dense and sweet, sparking with visceral lines that swing between love and hate, each of the characters swiveling back and forth between cutting character attacks and brilliant Noel Coward humor. And believe me, the jokes are needed. By the second act the night I saw the show, some members of the audience were visibly shaken, their faces flushed and holding back tears.
The play begins with an edgy spat whose purpose is to end in makeup sex. The chaotic dance between the lovers never ends. Clifton Holznagel as Jon and David Bellis-Squires as M fling heated words at each other, with an equal measure of gentleness. Bellis-Squires gives a great performance as a starched-shirt lover, full of kinetic energy and desperation: Jon and M’s relationship wrestles between attachment and bitterness. Both actors establish the character’s strengths and flaws within the first five minutes. They have a power struggle, and just as in real life, it’s pretty ugly. Members of the audience were so engaged, they felt uncomfortable, as if they’d walked into a real room where a real fight was going on. This is Defunkt at its best: intimate, honest, with an emphasis on acting and script.
In formal terms, Cock is what’s known as a well-made play. While the four characters play off each other and complement the plot, all of them are major players: there are no minor ones. Kayla Lian plays W, the woman who enters the picture and turns Jon’s head “right round, like that girl in The Exorcist.” She’s not a foil, but the feminine motif upon which the others respond. Lian is a subtle actress who uses her physical movements and timpani of a voice to great effect.
At its heart, Bartlett’s script is a contemporary conversation about relationships. Can we love whom we want as a person, or does our attraction create a dividing line? It’s a brutal, but successful look into binary gender roles. We in the audience want to know, who will Jon choose? By the end of the play, Holznagel’s Jon is weeping. We want to pick him up and hold him, tell him it’ll be OK.
Veteran Ted Schultz gives Cock an earthy, necessary grounding in Act II. With all the static flying around – attraction, partnership, dreams, the general chaos of infidelity – his staunch presence is welcoming. He plays M’s father and support, which are just as needed by the audience.
Defunkt is a minimalist theater in terms of props, and yet we move in and out of spaces such as subways, living rooms, bedrooms and patios with ease. Director Jon Kretzu makes it easy for us to imagine the spaces, meals, and lives of each of the characters: It’s a great triumph of the imagination. Andrew Klaus Vineyard, sound design and production manager, deftly takes us in and out of the flashback moments back to the plot, and guides us through the narratives as they play out. The play would not come off without his successful work.
After leaving the theater I was a bit worse for wear, but in a good way. Defunkt provides a generous space to reflect and come to terms with ourselves. There aren’t a lot of movies that can do this – only a handful of directors, like Ingmar Bergman, can tear you down to build you up – and we can choose which songs to listen to, but a play like Cock stares us right in the face. No one ever said art had to be pretty, but it can be right and tell the story we need to hear.
Defunkt’s Cock continues through November 15. Ticket and schedule information here.