Life and Art

Arizona Repertory Theatre pulls us in with Neil LaBute's troubling tale of transformation

The question of what is—and is not—art has been debated for centuries. So has the role of the artist in any given culture, as well as the ways in which life and art intersect.

Neil LaBute gives us more to think about in his The Shape of Things, the current production by Arizona Repertory Theatre, the training ground for UA students who are serious about committing to a career in professional theater. ART consistently reaches high and often impresses with its efforts. The Shape of Things is a terrific choice for the troupe, providing age-appropriate roles for college-age kids who surely must be trying to decipher their own ideas about relationships, art and what it means to be an artist.

Based on his body of work to date, LaBute has been referred to as misanthropic, misogynistic and acerbic. As a theater student at Brigham Young University, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; although the institution recognized his talent, he was a troublesome presence. Ultimately, he was "disfellowshipped" from the church and asked not to write about Mormon characters. Some of his better-known work includes the films In the Company of Men (1997) and Nurse Betty (2000). The Shape of Things was also made into a movie in 2003, two years after the play debuted in 2001.

In the ART production, LaBute reveals himself to be a thoughtful writer unafraid to set in motion relationships which both disturb and compel. He's also unafraid to tease us, drawing us into a story which initially seems rather shallow, only to launch us into a landscape where we may not only feel uncomfortable, but appalled.

The story is simple enough: In the art museum on a small college campus, Adam (Javan Nelson), a nondescript student hired to supervise visitors, confronts a young woman defiantly wielding a can of spray paint. Seeming intent on defacing a statue, Evelyn (Dylan Page) says she is an art student and brashly proclaims somewhat radical notions as she speaks of her master's-thesis project. Adam is a sharp, personable chap who can spar rather charmingly with this intimidating force, all while trying to get her to reconsider her mission. As they talk, Evelyn seems drawn to Adam and suggests they get to know one another. Unaccustomed to attention from such a strong and attractive woman, Adam enthusiastically accepts.

What follows is a perverse Pygmalion-esque tale in which Adam is transformed. Putty in Evelyn's hands, he changes his diet and his weight, trades his glasses for contacts, and re-styles his hair. He even gets a re-sculpted nose. In short, he blossoms in ways which are arguably all for the better. He begins to attract the attention of others—unheard of in his pre-Evelyn days. His friends Jenny (Heather Grace Hancock) and Phil (Mike Reasor) find his transformation rather curious, and they just can't seem to warm up to Evelyn. When Evelyn insists that Adam dump his friends, he senses her request has crossed a line—but his connection to her has blurred boundaries. He has utter faith that her suggestions arise from her love, and so he willingly yields to her.

LaBute leads us to the crest of this slippery slope and gives us a push. To reveal more would be unfair. Let's just say it's a wild ride.

ART does a good job with this production. Nelson's Adam is credibly sweet, genuine, loyal and vulnerable—all the things he should be. In Evelyn, LaBute has created a tall order, requiring her to be powerful, articulate and sure of what she wants without being so overbearing that we can't embrace her, at least uneasily. Page walks that line skillfully. Hancock and Reasor offer sound characterizations as Adam's friends, and ably fulfill LaBute's need for them as catalysts for the action.

Natalie Lape's set works well. With the addition of simple props, an empty expanse of multiple levels becomes specific locales of various scenes. In the background, columns of ill-defined forms come and go, providing a visual sense of shape-shifting and fluidity. Scot Gianelli's lighting brings this all together for a very effective visual impact.

Music was a huge presence in LaBute's original production, reportedly played at conversation-killing volume pre-show and between scenes as well. Matt Marcus' sound design ditched the overwhelming volume, but the choice of music is a strong and deliberate presence and an integral part of the production's sensibility.

Costumer Katie Wicker does an adequate job, but it's hard to believe that Adam is undergoing the physical transformation referred to by others. Granted, the logistics of attempting to accomplish this are challenging, but the absence of clear visual clues is a notable distraction.

Director Cathy Hartenstein has overseen the melding of these elements and keeps the tale moving—no small feat because of the play's episodic nature. However, the choice to include an intermission, which LaBute had intentionally omitted, doesn't serve the play well. LaBute has fashioned a series of brief scenes which should march in a carefully measured rhythm. By inserting an intermission, this rhythm is interrupted, and our minds disengage. Without an intermission, we are strapped in for the ride with no means to escape; this approach would better underscore LaBute's intentions.

Still, ART's production delivers a punch. The critical aspects of our lives—our relationships and our diverse ideas about art, sanity, truth, and even good and evil—may be subjective. But surely it is our responsibility to weigh the consequences of our beliefs and actions, and to establish boundaries, even if those boundaries must sometimes be redrawn in response to the ever-changing shape of things.

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