‘Cock’ at The Studio Theatre

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Buckle your seat belts.

Love is often random, rarely planned, and always unpredictable.

When you fall in love rational thinking is no longer common place.

We can’t help who we love.

But, in a fresh twist on the modern day love triangle, Cock, the closing production of the 2013-2014 Subscription Series at The Studio Theatre, posits can one help it if they fall in love with two people at the same time? Furthermore, how does one explain if they fall in love with someone not only of the opposite sex but one of the same? Is that person confused… a bisexual … or just plain selfish?

Ben Cole (John), Scott Parkinson (M), and Liesel Allen Yeager (W).  Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Ben Cole (John), Scott Parkinson (M), and Liesel Allen Yeager (W). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Why is there such a need to categorize and label one another? Questions like these and what really matters when it comes to the desires of the heart and our identity are several of the themes and confrontations in this remarkable achievement of a play.

Cock. Don’t be quick to rebuff this production because of the title. Taking on every connotation over the course the play, the title refers to the slang for a sexual organ, it’s used as a British colloquialism, as well as a reference for the disarming blunders and ‘cockups’ that take place.

Yes, it is intentionally attention-grabbing; but the absorbing writing and the honesty of this substantive amusingly, clever play challenges you to accept the dare, and as an audience member you are rewarded.

Saying Cock is a refreshing exercise in new growth theatre is an understatement. Written by Mike Bartlett, a pillar of the New British Invasion Festival at Studio this season, Cock is a transgressive, no-holds-barred, minimalistic, theatrical adventure to the wild side of sexual politics, competition and word slay. It’s smart and it’s bold. Cock is a searing theater experience that is a thought-provoking tightrope walk into the world of temptation and lacerating truth. The deft direction by David Muse produces a thrilling rollercoaster ride that not only demands your attention, it will engage and surprise you.

At only 33 years and more than nine plays written (Contradictions, Studio 2ndStage 2013), Bartlett is considered one of England’s leading playwrights, a recognized wordsmith, and is at the vanguard of New British Minimalism in theatre.

Bartlett’s incisive work strips bare the preciousness of the theatricality of the contemporary world. Muse’s in sync aesthetic instincts does the same. As is called for in the script, this naturalistic drama is presented with no props and little set design by Debra Booth, other than the earthy, dirt filled circle stage under fluorescent lights by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills, surrounded by the audience on three sides.

Think of it literally as being center stage in a verbal cock fight. It’s a master stoke and the focus of attention is exactly where it should be on these fascinating, complicated characters and the power of Bartlett’s commanding, wittily written word. Muse’s staging with the circling, back and forth, and shifting choreography of the movement among the characters parallels the momentum of the emotional dynamics and sexual encounters created by the text.

Everything about the artifice of this production is parred down to its lowest common denominator including the names of the characters in the script. With the exception of the lead who is given a very common name (John), the personalization of the other characters is minimal, solely represented by letters: M (for Man), W (for Woman), and F (for Father.)

Identity, self-esteem, and confidence (or lack thereof) are clashing factors in this whirlwind of a 95minute play. The rapid style follows the turgid exchanges between the characters with a succession of scenes as speech tumbles from one to another, as they struggle to make themselves understood. Cock pulls no punches with the trajectory and velocity of the heated exchanges. What plays out like an animated stage reading of the desire of the strong and the tyranny of the weak, turns into Bartlett’s eclectic statement on the different kinds of power and a reflection on the limitations of identity politics and gender.

Sensitive, with an unassuming charm John is a man in crisis. (Ben Cole is amiable and impassioned.) He’s a self identified gay man who has lived with M (Scott Parkinson), a stockbroker for several years and he has never been attracted to a woman until he meets W (Liesel Allen Yeager). Paralyzed by ambivalence, guilt, and  John’s ardent search for who he is and what he wants is hypnotizing. He’s caught between two futures that he can imagine for himself, and the struggle is a wrestle with his soul and his intellect.

Scott Parkinson returns to Studio after appearing in An Illiad last season, where I first became familiar with the focused intensity Parkison can bring to a character. The daggers thrown from a  glaring Parkinson stare can stop you in your tracks. Yet what is delightful with his M character is the biting humor and sarcasm that totally ensnare the audience. The dexterous skill and speed he can transition from pained and vulnerable one moment to brazen and competitive the next is eye-opening.

The character W is a juicy role. Yeager fully realizes this well expressed character who goes after what she wants, and isn’t afraid to fight for it.  While I questioned the motivations of her desires as much if not more than John, I loved that her feminine complexity is allowed to roar as a multidimensional woman with choices.

Ben Cole (John) and Scott Parkinson (M). Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Ben Cole (John) and Scott Parkinson (M). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Bruce Dow (F), a Helen Hayes nominee this year for his hilarious performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Shakespeare Theatre Company, is all seriousness here as F, and the dramatic heft that brings to the pivotal dinner scene and afterward are as illuminating as they are frightening.

The righteous show down between F and W is intense, the verbal combat unnerving, and it’s a heightened, unsparing moment that won’t be soon forgotten. The performances by this entire cast are staggering, and the weight of their emotional baggage is not easily peeled away.

I have to admit it, I love it when Studio Theatre curates a season that includes plays with tantalizing titles – such as The Motherfucker with the Hat last season and this latest offering. Why? Simply because I am provoked by the boldness and am intrigued to see if the playwright can live up to their aggressive proclamation.

More importantly though, Studio Theatre has a proven track record of presenting striking, progressive material from today’s greatest playwrights, and with every offering or provocative title in their theatrical vision comes an innovative, intellectual, and emotional journey. A “risky” play like Cock in Studio Theatre’s hands is more than an exploitive tease. They don’t dangle the theatrical carrot without the promise of a satisfying reward.

Cock is a sharp, ripe experience that shouldn’t be missed and is the perfect end to an incredible 2013-2014 Studio Theatre season.

Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.

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Cock plays through June 22, 2014 at The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre-1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]