Theatre Exile explores sexual identity in Philly premier of ‘Cock’
by Larry Nichols
Oct 17, 2013 | 1217 views | 0 0 comments | 182 182 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<b>THE MAGIC NUMBER:</b> Wes Haskell (center) with John Jarboe and Mary Tuomanen Photo: Robert Hakalski
THE MAGIC NUMBER: Wes Haskell (center) with John Jarboe and Mary Tuomanen Photo: Robert Hakalski
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Theatre Exile is launching its 2013-14 season with the Philadelphia premiere of “Cock,” the award-winning play by British playwright Mike Bartlett.

Set on a sparse and propless stage, “Cock” is the story of John, who is dealing with the thorny emotional landscape of his life after he has an affair with W during a break from his boyfriend, M.

Artistic director Deborah Block said “Cock” manages to inject some humor into a situation that is quite traumatic for characters who are wrestling with issues of sexual identity.

“While the story poses a serious question and is a serious journey, there are a lot of light moments that usually come from people fumbling around each other,” she said. “It’s not going to be a heavy journey, although the ultimate journey definitely is a serious one. There’s a lot of ideas and conflict in there. Do I have to take this label? Are you making me behave a certain way? Because I love this person, does that mean I’m not allowed to do that? Also being able to separate a good relationship from a bad relationship. All of those things get globbed together to the point where it is very difficult for him to discern it. I think part of it is it’s a lot for someone to have to navigate, understanding fully who they are when they are young and in their 20s.”

Added actor Wes Haskell who plays John: “It definitely explores the human condition in a comical way but it asks very serious and difficult questions. It uses humor but the subject matter is definitely a serious issue. One of the essential questions is: Are we defined by sexuality? And whether or not that is answered is up to the audience. I know that playing the character John, I very much do not want to be defined by my sexuality. I want to be defined by who I am, by what I do and by the type of person that I am. That’s his struggle and those around him want to define him by his sexuality and make him choose. But John fights that, hence the journey he has to go on.”

John tried to work out his conflicting feelings by arranging for M and W to meet over a dinner that also includes M’s father, F.

Block said that referring to the other characters in the play with letters instead of names, along with the minimalist setting, gives the action on stage a scientific and academic feel.

“The playwright very much stripped away everything down to the essentials,” she said. “I believe he tried to do that with the entire world. There is no set or props and you are not allowed to mime. He was very specific. Just to make sure we are doing it, he references props and references the characters holding things but you are not allowed to mime them. He stripped down the characters to their central archetypal roles. That is why everyone is stripped of their name, because they are essentially an archetype in many ways. The shows that we do are an emotional roller coaster. In this particular show, it takes that to the next level, almost like a scientific equation. Things don’t change unless here is a catalyst and the catalyst in this play is a car accident. And everything changes because of that.”

Both Block and Haskell said the presence of F gives the love triangle an added dimension of complexity.

“What’s interesting is that John clearly does not have a super-strong relationship with his family,” Haskell said. “Both M and F have created this family for John. That definitely affects how John looks at the relationship and what he could be losing when he has to make a decision eventually. I think that F brings in a little bit of force and the push that John needs because John doesn’t want to make a decision, but he is forced to by society and F represents that and an old way of thinking. That comes to fruition when he shows up.”

“The idea of not losing a person but losing a community and a family is very important,” Block added. “I also think that the playwright wrote the M character in such a way that he couldn’t sympathetically present all these points of view for John to hear. But John can hear them ultimately from the father. They would be able to have that nice discussion because if they could have that nice discussion, they would have had that already. That father brings that in for him. In Europe, they call this the cockfight play and I don’t think it’s a straight-up cockfight. It’s more complex than that. A cockfight would be M and W fighting against each other to the death. That’s not what this is. It’s a far more complex laying-out of ideas.”

Both Block and Haskell said the beauty of the story is that the audience can relate to all the characters in the play who represent the questions posed by the situation.

“Hopefully they will sympathize with all of them because all of them are right and all of them are wrong,” Haskell said. “I hope that the audience will have as difficult a decision deciding how this will play out as John does. I hope they go on that roller coaster with us because then I think they will be able to understand it and why it is difficult.”

“I know when I first read the play, I perceived John and M’s relationship differently,” Block added. “I actually perceived M to be even more of a bully. I didn’t understand his love for John initially. What I hope to do with this production is for you to be able to see the merits of all the relationships that are on the table so it’s not a simple answer. So when the audience leaves it’s not about what is the right decision but what decision would I make. There is not a finite, clear road to the answer.”

Theatre Exile presents “Cock” through Nov. 10 at Theatre Exile’s Studio X, 1340 13th St. For more information or tickets, call 215-218-4022 or visit www.theatreexile.org.

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