So the name of the play is Cock.
All right, settle down. Even though the show takes place at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater, the name does not mean what you’re thinking. Think cock FIGHT. Like, roosters. OK?
Included in the printed program is an actual fight card, listing the adversaries in each round. The setting is the next surprise: The audience sits around a square ring, inspired by the illegal sport, and the actors represent their chicken counterparts. Frankly, it’s the best seating arrangement I have seen at the Desert Rose: Everyone is so close to the action, and the raked back rows are on risers so we all can see perfectly. It’s great! Not all plays lend themselves to this format, but we hope that clever producer Paul Taylor will use this style again when possible.
British playwright Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play opened last weekend, and will be performed for four more weekends at the Rancho Mirage playhouse. Lighting director Phil Murphy has brilliantly lit this stark set. Stage manager Steve Fisher rings a bell between rounds, as in boxing. (Sorry … I have no idea whether there are bells in actual cockfights.)
Theater in the round brings with it a true challenge for a director, because in this format, the actors are always facing away from some of the audience, while facing others, so they must change position frequently. But here the actors can face each other, like real people talking! This almost never happens on a proscenium stage where actors “cheat forward” to present their faces to the audience. Thank heaven for the excellent natural acoustics of the Desert Rose, as the intimate size (usually 83 seats, but 65 in this style) helps us hear everything. Theater in the round can fail horribly in too large of a room, where the actors’ voices vanish because they seem to be always facing away from you, or in a room with a ceiling that’s too high, where the sound drifts up, up and away from your straining ears. A modified three-quarters circle format is frequently the compromise; think classic Shakespeare. Here, director Jim Strait has brilliantly choreographed the actors’ movements, with the seduction scene being the model example of this theatrical style.
If you expect that this rumble just involves two guys squaring off, think again: It’s a cast of four, each with an agenda to defend. John, played by Stephen McMillen, has been in a long-term relationship with “M,” acted by Robert Rancano. They break up, and John “accidentally” falls in love with a straight girl, “W” (Phylicia Mason; we guess that the letters stand for “Man” and “Woman”). Of course, there is much angst all around when John goes back to M. Then M and W both agree to wait for John’s decision: With whom will he live? M’s father, “F,” (for “Father,” right?) gets to act as referee, so we meet Terry Huber at a dinner party given to sort things out.
So is John gay … or straight? Hmmm? What will he decide?
By the way, we have to slap a “mature” rating on this show due to “frank” (a term I love) sexual language. We’re so PC! But truly, this show not for anyone easily offended, as the playwright clearly wants us to be shocked.
The set consists of just two lavender hassocks on which to sit. There are no props—no cutlery, china, wine glasses or even a dinner table. There are no costumes, except what the actors are wearing, and no scenery. And get this: The actors don’t even mime their eating/drinking/taking coats off. So, no distractions! The author’s words are all that matter.
And the words! There are British accents all around. The writing is a cross between free-verse poetry and real life, where sentences are only partially spoken and often unfinished. Strait’s artful direction all but eliminates pauses between speeches, and the tension rises or falls with the speed, pitch and volume of the actors’ voices. It’s a masterful demo of acting technique.
At the show we attended, the actors were rewarded with pin-drop attention, as the audience is so physically close to the actors that every flicker of an eyelash contains significance. Our attention is riveted.
McMillen, the quintessential beautiful blond boy, dithers and stews and not only seems incapable of making decisions, but has never even figured out who or what he is. Youth! So he is frozen, overthinking everything. He makes us want to either smack him into action, or hug him in sympathy.
Rancano, dark-haired and fashionably unshaven, with flawless skin, is like pepper to McMillen’s salt. More mature and powerful, but attempting to hide his sensitivity, he shows a confidence that comes with age while trying to cover his fragile feelings. His performance hits just the right note.
Mason lights up the world with her sparkling eyes and gorgeous smile. She struts a perfect figure that will make everyone in the audience silently swear to go on a diet and get back to the gym. Great legs, toned body, amazing hair, sweet face—she has it all. Her character is complex, and she knows how to show it. Now if she could only do something about those black bra straps showing at the back of that terrific coral dress … .
Terry Huber, perhaps the busiest actor in the valley this season, has a face you just never get tired of watching. The shades of meaning he can express are uncountable, and as a gifted actor with a pocketful of regional accents from which to choose, his choice of this British one is pitch-perfect. His second-act role here is too small—we always want to see more of him.
The concept of fowl fisticuffs is wonderful; the casting is perfect; the direction is genius; the script is astonishing; and the actors’ energies are beautifully balanced. Obviously I’m not going to give away the ultimate decision or reveal who is left standing at the final bell.
You’ll have to go to the next match yourself.
Cock is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 10; there is no show on Easter Sunday, March 27. The shows take place at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.