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‘Cock (or The Cockfight Play)’ at Fells Point Corner Theatre

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In the blood sport known as cockfighting, two roosters are placed in a ring, called a “cockpit,” and fight until one of them dies. The same thing happens, in a metaphorical sense, in Mike Bartlett’s fascinating play Cock (or The Cockfight Play), which is being given a stellar production at Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore.

Barbara Madison Hauck, David Shoemaker, and Donald Charles. Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Barbara Madison Hauck, David Shoemaker, and Donald Charles. Photo by Tessa Sollway Photography.

Bartlett (an Olivier Award Winner for the current Broadway hit King Charles III) has structured his intermissionless play in to three matches, instead of acts, and a series of rounds, within each match, instead of scenes.

In the first match we meet John (played with wounded vulnerability by David Shoemaker), a young gay man, described by one character as a “pencil sketch” and his older, successful and financially stable lover, who is never referred to by name and is only noted in the program as “M” (an exceptionally good Donald Charles). As the play opens, M is hovering over and micromanaging John, as he prepares a meal. We immediately sense, by this encounter, that the relationship is troubled. As the rounds of this match continue and the arguments grow more substantial, it becomes clear that that this is less of a relationship and more of a battle (or cockfight) with very high stakes: human emotion.

In, perhaps, a moment of youthful impulse, John declares the relationship over. M demands that John take it back as if “un-saying” the words will put them back in the bottle from which they have been poured, as if picking the words up and stuffing them back inside himself will make them not true. But John doesn’t believe his words can be swept up tidily, once they are tossed out and he leaves. Drawn back by the allure of the familiar, of comfort, of sex or maybe even love, John returns seeking to reconcile. He confesses that while he was apart from M, he had sex with a woman.

2: Barbara Madison Hauck, David Shoemaker, Thom Peters, and Donald Charles. Photo by

Barbara Madison Hauck, David Shoemaker, Thom Peters, and Donald Charles. Photo by Tessa Sollway Photography.

In the second match Bartlett introduces us to the woman, referred to only as “W” (the commanding Barbara Madison Hauck) looking very much the innocent with her long blond pony tail, but with a hardness that belies her 28 years. We eavesdrop on their first meeting, W’s seduction of John, if you will. We bear witness to John’s confusion and elation on first seeing and exploring a nude woman, and ultimately pleasuring her. And in the post-coital glow, we shudder to think at what exactly John has unlocked, in his own mind and body.

Inevitably, M and W are destined to meet, which they do, in the last match. At M’s request, John has invited W to dinner. M wants John to tell W that he has chosen to be with M. W believes that she is being invited to dinner so John can tell M that he has chosen to be with her. A fourth guest joins them for dinner, M’s father (Thom Peters), referred to only in the program as “F”.  F fancies himself the liberal old man, accepting his gay son and throwing out words, like “bisexuality.” But to him, and this is true for W and M as well, sexual orientation is a rigid construct.

F repeatedly implores John to, “work out what you are.” When John finally responds that it doesn’t matter, what matters is, “who the person is,” it feels like the revelation we have been waiting for all evening. And though, it may seem obvious, Shoemaker makes this idea seem so new that I felt like I was discovering it with him. John does, ultimately, make a choice, and while I won’t reveal it here, I will say that it felt very real to me and the end left me shaken.

On one level Cock involves several cockfights: between John and M, John and W, W and M, W and M and John, and W and M and F and John played out on Roy Steinman’s set appropriately dingy set of cream colored walls stained at the bottom with rust or dirt or blood, and a floor with a painted circle to symbolize the cockpit. But I don’t think Bartlett’s play is that obvious or that simple. I believe that Bartlett is, in part, commenting on the fluidity of sexuality, and the idea that it exists on a spectrum, rather than in a box. John talks about how when he came out he was embraced by the gay community and swept up in it. It seems that John didn’t have a chance to explore his own sexuality, something that has caused him both regret and confusion.

I think that the ultimate cockfight in the play is the one that takes place in John’s head, between the life he has (with M) and the one that is possible (with W). W represents every fear and irrational thought John has about sexuality. But she is also the manifestation of the road not taken, of the life John didn’t live. In the end, as in all cockfights, there’s a death, of sorts. But for the victor, there’s no strut. In life, there never is.

I questioned whether or not anything in the play was real and whether everything was taking place in John’s head. At one point John says, to W, “maybe this is all madness.” Maybe there’s something to that. Bartlett doesn’t give us any easy answers. What he does give us is a play that feels “of the moment” (it premiered in London in 2009 at the Royal Court Theatre ), where even the idea of “gay” or “bisexuality” seems somewhat antiquated. The style is influenced by the later work of the great British playwright Caryl Churchill, in its deceptive simplicity and economy of language, as well as Edward Albee, in its depiction of a world slightly askew. But Bartlett has his own unique voice, one that I’m certain we will hear more of in the future (It was recently announced that his play Love, Love Love will be opening in New York next season).

The cast is uniformly excellent in tackling this difficult play and Director Steve Goldklang has staged it in a manner that is both clean and simple, with no props and only four chairs. I can assure you that work that looks this easy, isn’t. Goldklang should be given tremendous credit for making it look effortless; that’s very hard to do.

Stanley Kudzin’s lighting gives the space a mostly clinical feel, as if these people are to be observed and studied. It’s an appropriate choice and suits the style of the piece nicely. The dialect work is excellent, as is the costume design, which is sleek and modern, save for John in ill fitted, messy clothing, a man/child playing dress up in a world where he’s unsure of his place.

Good theatre should show us the world in a way that we hadn’t considered. It should tell us a story that can only be done in a dark room, with live actors. It should transport us to another time or place or both. Cock succeeds on all counts.

David Shoemaker and Donald Charles. Photo by Tessa Sollway Photography.

David Shoemaker and Donald Charles. Photo by Tessa Sollway Photography.

There were long moments during this production where I forgot I was there to review it. I became so absorbed in the play that I forgot my notebook and pen. I forgot that I was sitting in a seat, in a theatre, at Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. I was in a dingy room with blood or rust or dirt on the walls. And I watched while a man, similar to my much younger self in many ways, fought forces both outside and within himself.

And I was transported to a place that was both familiar and new, and I was told a story, that could only have been told by four extraordinary actors and I left this room with much to think about regarding things that I thought I had already lived long enough to figure out. Yes, this production of Cock (or The Cockfight Play) at Fells Point Corner Theatre is really that good.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and forty five minutes, with no intermission.

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Cock (or The CockFight Play) plays through December 20, 2015 at Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 276-7837, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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