Studio Theatre’s raw, audacious ‘Cock’ is one big deal

Remastered for camera, the Helen Hayes Award–winning play gets a taut, tight performance in a production design that's a winner.

Set me free why don’t cha babe
Get out my life why don’t cha babe
‘Cause you don’t really love me
You just keep me hangin’ on

These unflinching lyrics floated through my brain as I took in Studio Theatre’s glorious new film of Mike Bartlett’s Cock. This is Studio’s first foray into streaming a performance that was recorded on one of its stages. And this raw, spartan production is one big deal, for Studio, like other DC-area theaters, has been dark since last March.

Directed by David Muse, as was the 2014 Studio production, Cock is a rock-solid, remastered-for-camera version of the Helen Hayes Award–winning play in a taut, tight performance on a spare set. If you saw Cock in 2014, as I did, see it again. If you missed it back then, take the opportunity to view it now. A stylish and sophisticated blend of the theatrical and the cinematic, it is something to behold.

Randy Harrison (John) and Scott Parkinson (M) in ‘Cock.’ Screenshot courtesy of Studio Theatre.

Muse focuses the production on the actors and Bartlett’s audacious, character-nuanced dialogue. The four-member ensemble circle one another looking for an opening to knock another else off their feet through emotionally delivered verbal jabs, counter punches, and movement. Not a physical weapon in sight..

Muse and his outstanding creative film crew led by Wes Culwell (director of video) and Adrian Musy (director of photography) have a fine eye for how the camera lens focuses audience attention. The high-quality sound design is by James Bigbee Garver (Sound Cue Design), and Allie Roy was production stage manager. There are only a few Zoom-like boxes in the film. This is a film with physical movement within the circle ring—sometimes with one character, sometimes two or more. The editing of the multiple cameras is terrific. And the actors are at safe distances, or filmed separately then edited together.

Studio marketing suggests that “Cock is a tale of sexual attractions and a plentitude of simultaneous conflicting feelings along with an abundance of heated exchanges that pose complex questions about identity, sexuality, and a need for certainty and loyalty in a relationship.” Bartlett’s characters are just plain perplexed and angst-ridden. But they deliver tasty morsels of spicy, pointed, hissy dialogue and rapier-sharp active wordplay along with comic moments to sugar up the tartness and pain. In its own way, Cock is a school yard brawl or perhaps a bare-knuckles boxing brawl. The characters smash at each other, some directly, some more in a passive aggressive manner.

So Cock has a Hamlet-like character charmer named John, who is questioning all he is. He can’t seem to make a decision. He isn’t sure he has a real voice. He wonders who does he love, what does he want? How can he decide between the two people who want him? And then stick with his decision? Is he just indecivsive or is there more to him as he struggles with answers to questions about his sexuality while bringing emotional damage to others. For John (convincingly played in a sometimes coy, sometimes passive-aggressive manner by a magnetic Randy Harrison), perhaps it is this: that when he looks in a mirror or out a window there are so many different me’s to be. He is not confused, but a fluid person living in a binary world of choices, and a woman’s anatomy is unknown to him.

Kathryn Tkel (W) and Randy Harrison (John) in ‘Cock.’ Screenshot courtesy of Studio Theatre.

John has been living with an older, stock-broker partner named M. Scott Parkinson returns to Studio to reprise his Helen Hayes–nominated performance. As M, Parkinson first presents as a strong, powerful individual but full of bitterness that John “always” lets him down and that John seemingly can’t make a commitment. Then Parkinson presents a nuanced vulnerability as his hidden-away hurts come to the surface.

Cock takes on more complexity when John finds himself meeting cute and becoming involved not with another man but with a divorced, childless woman in her late 20s named W (a splendidly soulful, sometimes gentle, sometimes forthright Kathryn Tkel). Is John the answer to her loneliness? “I think you might be right for me,” she suggest to John. She wants a family, to settle down, to move to Paris with him. She is audacious as well. “Would you consider sleeping with a woman?” she gently asks, pointing out that her anatomy is different from John’s previous lovers. But John returns to M seeking a reconciliation. “Kiss me, show me you love me.”

There is also a latecomer to Cock at a thrown-together dinner party. It is M’s father, icalled F, played as a verbal fatherly viper by Alan Wade. He is trying to protect his son from harm as he badgers John to make a decision. Will someone get hurt?

Randy Harrison (John) and Scott Parkinson (M) in ‘Cock.’ Screenshot courtesy of Studio Theatre.

The technical production design for Cock is a winner. The set design is an open circle in which the play takes place. There are a dozen or so short scenes separated by a buzzer. The spare set with a soft gray-tone floor is below eight long fluorescent tubes from Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills. And that is all that is needed—for the dialogue and words and the film editing bring it all to powerful view. Costumes are tastefully casual and demure. Nothing takes away from Bartlett’s words.

It’s been just over a year since theaters in the DC area went dark. At the beginning we wondered what would be. Over this past 12 months we have learned that DC-area theatermakers are a resilient lot with plenty of creative skills in this current hybrid times for live theater. Studio’s Cock is an outstanding example of what theatermakers are doing.

Kathryn Tkel (W) and Alan Wade (F) in ‘Cock.’ Screenshot courtesy of Studio Theatre.

Moving beyond its daring title, Cock is a striking, verbally pungent jolt of theater. And not one bit of clothing is ever taken off. It is an unflinching examination of the fluid nature of life and the questioning of identity.

Studio’s assured production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock provocatively asks many questions, then leaves answers up to audience members to contemplate and perhaps decide.

Cock with its many layers left me reeling—ready to interact and argue with others to come to terms with it. Who is the ultimate winner for the evening? You, the audience, are. You get to decide on your own who of the Cock characters needs whom and who gets to sleep at night all on their own.

Running time: About 90 minutes.

Cock by Mike Bartlett, presented by Studio Theatre, will be available to stream on-demand through Studio’s website (studiotheatre.org) from through April 18, 2021. Purchase tickets online or by calling 202-332-3300

NOTE: This production contains strong language and sexual content. As for me I am listening to Vanilla Fudge’s organ drum powerful “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1967) right now.

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