The Cruel Art of Love

24Mar10

The Shape of Things at QP challenges our concepts of truth, art & love

Art and love: we tend to demand truth and honesty in both. But are such expectations fair or even realistic? And if love and art have the power to change lives, at what price? Those are just a few of the questions posed by Neil Labute’s “The Shape of Things,” the current production by the Quannapowitt Players in Reading, Massachusetts .

Directed by Nancy Curran Willis, The Shape of Things takes a provocative and at times uncomfortable look at art, relationships and love – and the impact that they have on our lives. The play centers on the lives of four college students in a Midwestern town who become emotionally and romantically involved with each other.

Adam (played by Gordon Ellis) is an overweight, nerdy undergrad English major working as a museum guard when he first meets Evelyn (Kristen Dattoli), a very attractive graduate art student who is just a master’s project away from receiving her MFA. She has a can of spray paint and admits to Adam that she was just about to deface a museum sculpture. Evelyn objects to the museum’s decision to bow to community standards and cover the genitalia of the nude male statue with a fig leaf, and she plans to rectify the situation with spray paint.

In the course of trying to dissuade Evelyn from her plan, Adam and she hit it off. “You’re cute!” Evelyn observes, and she even laughs at Adam’s jokes. He asks her out and Evelyn accepts, even though she would appear to be way out of Adam’s league. But Adam is a truly nice guy with many good qualities and before long the two are practically inseparable.

Adam is especially smitten. With Evelyn’s encouragement, he goes on a diet and starts working out. He trades in his horn-rimmed glasses for contact lenses, and even undergoes minor cosmetic surgery. But even in his new and improved state, Adam senses that Evelyn is way too hot for him.

“Why do you like me?” he asks, and receives a lecture on his lack of self-esteem.

“One thing I don’t like is your insecurity,” Evelyn scolds.

The couple double-date with Adam’s former roommate, Phil (Bill Stambaugh) and his fiancée, Jenny (Jenn Shea). They immediately notice the physical changes in Adam and the newfound confidence that comes with it.

But there’s trouble on the horizon. Phil and Jenny are planning their wedding, but Jenny used to have a thing for Adam and Phil is having second thoughts about the impending marriage. Jenny also suspects that Phil may be cheating on her and seeks reassurance from Adam. Adding to the awkwardness between the two couples, Evelyn and Phil get into a spat during one of the double dates and come to despise each other.

A big part of directing theater is casting, and Willis seems to have cast the actors nearly perfectly for their respective parts. Labute’s play has some great one-liners and all four actors are up to delivering the witty, rapid-fire dialog. Bill Stambaugh is especially good as Phil. He seems a tad old for a college student, but is otherwise convincing as the kind of roguish charmer that women seem to go for. For all his flaws, Phil at least knows the value of friendship and loyalty.

Jenn Shea looks the part of the small-town girl, and as Jenny, her good-hearted conventionalism is no match for the ruthless, self-assurance of Evelyn.

Kristen Dattoli delivers a strong performance as Evelyn, the subtly domineering hottie who has Adam wrapped around her finger. Evelyn’s frankness should be unnerving, but her beguiling looks and alluring charm seem to overrule her potential cruelty, at least in Adam’s eyes.

Gordon Ellis captures the nerdy intellectual essence of Adam, a nice guy who can’t quite believe his good fortune and is willing to risk his sense of self to preserve what he has.

Both love and art have the power to transform lives. “The Shape of Things” challenges us to ponder whether that change is always for the best.

Nancy Curran Willis (nee Sturtevant), a 1965 Wakefield High School graduate, has directed both professional and community theater productions. In 2008, she earned an Elliot Norton Award from the Boston professional theatre critics for her direction Boston Theatre Works production of Angels in America, which also garnered a Norton for Best Production. Willis has also won many EMACT awards for community theater productions at QP and elsewhere.

Whatever the venue, Willis’s productions consistently achieve the caliber of professional theater, which is why “The Shape of Things” is such a bargain. Don’t miss this opportunity to see a professional quality theater production at less than half the price of professional theater.

“The Shape of Things” runs through April 3 at Quannapowitt Playhouse, 55 Hopkins St. in Reading. For show times and tickets, go online at qptheater.com/ or phone 781-942-2212.

[The Shape of Things. Directed by Nancy Curran Willis. Producer, Elizabeth Sheeran. Stage Manager, Judy Forgione. Set Design, Ruth Neeman. Costume Design, Anna Bruce. Hair and Makeup Design, Marc Capizzi. Lighting Design, Jason Benagh. Sound Design, Kimberly and Brian Fanning. Starring Gordon Ellis, Kristen Dattoli, Jenn Shea and Bill Stambaugh.]

This review originally appeared in the March 24, 2010 Wakefield Daily Item.

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