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‘Cock’ portrays the pain of love, lust and betrayal 

Dance meets drama in Mike Bartlett’s powerful play at Mad Cow

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TOM HURST
  • PHOTO BY TOM HURST

COCK

through July 20 | Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St. | 407-297-8788 | madcowtheatre.com | $35.75

Cock’s titillating title belies its maturity. From the name alone, one might expect crude comedy or sexual shenanigans. Instead, director Aradhana Tiwari and a strong cast deliver on the play’s promise to reveal the pain of love, lust and betrayal inside a bisexual relationship triangle.

The play, by British author Mike Bartlett, won an Olivier Award in 2010, and it’s easy to see why – Bartlett’s work presents a starkly contemporary examination of sexual identity in modern Britain. We learn what it means to be adrift in a lake of labels – not gay, not straight and not even bisexual, just full of lust and longing and looking for the easiest solution.

John is dating a character simply labeled M, for man. Yet something is lacking. “We’re sinking, you and me,” M tells John. “I’m taking a lifeboat.” John, too, seeks solace from drowning, but his choice is a woman – his first heterosexual relationship – in the form of the also-unnamed W, for woman.

In four mini-chapters within this 100-minute play (performed sans intermission), M and W bare their frustrations, insecurities and souls in a creatively choreographed contest to win the heart, or at least the cock, of John. Visually and even partially thematically, it’s the three-way duel from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly played out with hearts instead of guns. But when the dust clears, no one has really won. Still, the characters are wiser, for they’ve learned that sexuality may be neither a choice nor genetic, but just a strange “stew” of emotions with different desires bubbling to the surface at any given time.

Chris Crawford, as John, powerfully conveys sadness, indecision and fear while always flirting with funny in a way that Bartlett’s biting and often humorous lines demand. Peter Travis, as M, is equally impressive and maintains an almost impeccable British dialect. (The other actors’ accents aren’t bad, either, needing just a tad more accuracy and consistency.)

Heather Leonardi, as the third member of the triangle, has stunning stage presence and a smoldering sexuality that eventually compensate for a slight energy lull in the second grouping of scenes (between John and W). And by the time Rod Cathey shows up (as M’s father), the tension and angry sexuality are thicker than the traffic you must battle to get to Mad Cow’s downtown venue.

The other stars are Rebecca Pancoast and Michael Powers as scenic and lighting designers, respectively. Using the 60-seat black-box Zehngebot-Stonerock Theatre as a kind of fluorescently lit game board (perhaps inspired by Disney’s Tron), they have created a worthy companion to Tiwari’s dance-like blocking, in which actors move not just realistically but also emotionally through both physical and mental space. Even Leslye Menshouse’s understated, even drab, costumes work well by focusing attention on faces, which are almost always in perfect light.

Lazy metaphors can’t capture Cock. It’s not cocky, cocksure or even cock-of-the-walk. It’s just good theater: a dance of obscenity, heartache and humor that you won’t soon forget.

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