The Column Online



by Mike Bartlett

Second Thought Theatre

Directed by Alex Organ
Costume Design by Korey Kent
Lighting Design by Aaron Johansen
Sound Design by john Flores

M --- Blake Hackler
John --- Justin Locklear
F --- Robert Ousley
W --- Danielle Pickard

Reviewed Performance: 1/31/2014

Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

“…I can see now. I can see that it’s about WHO THE PERSON IS. Not man or woman but WHAT THEY’RE LIKE. WHAT THEY DO. … So why are you telling me that WHAT I sleep with is more important than WHO I sleep with?” John in C*** by Mike Bartlett

No, the play is not about a rooster and yes, it is about what first comes to your mind when you read the title, and much more than that, of course. Here’s how C*** has been billed previously: “When John and his boyfriend take a break, the last thing he expects is to suddenly meet the woman of his dreams. Now he has a big choice to make.” Ah, the age old device of the love triangle - with a new twist! There is also a dinner party with John, his lover M, along with F, the father of M, and W, the woman John now loves. Obviously, this is a setup for either comedy or tragedy or, perhaps in this work, a bit of both. Indeed, as a character says at that point, “This has become a farce!” If so, it’s a very dark one. Funny and terrible, dark and insightful.

I was not familiar with Mike Bartlett’s work, and in doing the research, discovered that he was born in 1980 in Oxford, England, studied English and Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds, and that in 2009 C*** premiered at the Royal Court where it won the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement In An Affiliate Theatre. In 2012, Bartlett adapted the movie Chariots of Fire for the stage, also adapting Medea for a touring production he directed himself. In 2013, he won Best New Play at The National Theatre Awards for his play Bull, beating out several much better known playwrights and has written many more works, winning several other awards. All of this information, along with several reviews of C***, which transferred to Off-Broadway in October of 2012, also directed by James Macdonald who staged the London premiere, made me eager to see the Second Thought Theatre’s production. I was not disappointed.

Justin Locklear plays John, the only character with a given name, who after taking a break from a long relationship with another man, meets a woman with whom he is first intrigued and then finds himself falling in love. This is a new experience for the character and what follows is the development of their relationship culminating in an exquisite and unique love scene.

Locklear never leaves the space in a role that demands a huge range of emotion, focus and energy. It is to his credit that we are with him all the way, caught up in his situation and understanding his hesitation. Physically, Mr. Locklear reminds me of John Cleese (perhaps the English accent helps) and has the physical ease of an actor confident in his body and his ability. The character wants to be known not by his sexuality but his identity, which is ironic as he is the only character given a name. Unfortunately, we know very little about him, not even his job, and in Mr. Locklear’s performance, his charm and attraction to both partners is sometimes a little hard to understand. If the full extent of his difficulty in choosing doesn’t quite come through in the end, being a little more petulant than heartfelt, it is still a bravura performance, notable for its stamina and emotional demands.

As M, John’s lover, Blake Hackler gives perhaps one of the finest performances I have seen locally in ages. There is such depth and inner life behind his eyes, reflected in every well-conceived gesture and movement, that an entire life is revealed, scene by scene. The love, the anger, the reigned-in emotion and the manipulation are all there to be discovered by the audience. All of it is done subtly in a truly remarkable incarnation. The character’s first meeting with the woman is filled with that anger and fear, little being done to hide the pain, incalculable and laid bare for the entire world to observe and the truth in the performance is almost too painful to watch. He speaks volumes with a look and his desperation and determination and need for control are all brought to a head in the knock-out final moments.

The woman in the piece, W, is played by Danielle Pickard in what may be the best performance I have had the pleasure of seeing her give. Her first appearance after the scenes between the male lovers is confident and well established, giving us a strong and determined, yet vulnerable female unafraid to face her feelings and express them. Her first scenes with Mr. Locklear are played in a long, sharp rectangle of light, each standing still, simply speaking to the other. Scene by scene, as the lights snap on and off and the bell rings, we see them move closer together and bit by bit the relationship is established visually. As stated earlier, the love scene between the two is a wonderful piece of theater: clean, true, and intensely erotic while still leaving the audience free to use its imagination, the exact thing that makes theater unique in all the arts. Her “seeing” the living room for the first time is one example of her skill, and in the extended dinner scene which forms the second half of the show, her trepidation, resilience and femininity are resoundingly displayed. It’s a stirring and beautifully crafted performance.

M’s father, F, is played by Robert Ousley, appearing in the second half of the show. The wonderful thing about this character is that the father absolutely believes that se*ual orientation is a given, not a choice, and uses this argument to try to convince John that he cannot possibly be attracted to both a man and a woman and that the attraction is not something he can choose. And yet, of course, the whole play is about asking John to make that very choice. The entire plot depends on it. Mr. Ousley is fully present as the character of the father from the instant he enters the scene and his love for his son is palpable and never in question. He is the papa bear there to back up his progeny and he uses his large physical presence and commanding vocal skills to his advantage in this characterization, taking the stage when necessary and stepping back when the scene is not his to dominate.

The outstanding thing about Alex Organ’s really fine directing work is his grasp of the scope of the play, its trajectory, and his sure hand is evident in every aspect of pace, build and emotional stake presented. This script, by its very sparseness in its scenic elements, demands a director capable of pulling the most from his actors and inspiring his technical crew and Mr. Organ has done that splendidly. While the playwright is clear about no scenery, furniture or props, he has absolutely no other stage directions in the script which makes Mr. Organ’s work all the more impressive. The creativity is to be applauded on every level. It is theater with a capital “T” and all the more effective for it.

Walking into Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus, you find an arena of sorts, audience seating in two rows at the end of the room on elevated platforms arranged in a wide “U” shape while the majority of the space is left empty. There is no set except for two chairs sitting in the corners opposite the audience, later used by actors when not engaged in a scene, and, as has been stated, there are no props or miming of props. Everything is stripped to a bare minimum. This, of course, puts the emphasis on the actors and the text, not unlike Dallas Theater Center’s production of Oedipus el Rey whose lighting design is also by Aaron Johansen. Bold geometric patterns of light begin to flash on the floor of the space and the three principal actors enter.

A bell sounds, not unlike that of a boxing match, and the scene begins. This repeats over and over throughout the play. The review in The New York Times called it “The C***fight Play” because the title couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper and that element is certainly present in the script and the presentation. Some scenes, especially in the first act, are very short. The attack by the actor’s at the beginning of each scene, the energy and the focus are a joy to watch. It’s a rare pleasure to see the actor’s craft so clearly presented for an audience to appreciate. Each beat builds, the pace never lags, and the story unfolds. Technique at the service of the story, evident but never distracting, that’s what theater is all about. For the audience, it is a true “suspension of disbelief.” The performers captivate us with their craft alone. The Greeks and Shakespeare knew this long before elaborate painted scenery and special effects began to show up.

The pre-show and intermission music is intriguing and carefully chosen by John M. Flores and the lighting by Aaron Johansen, using angle, and intensity, establishes place, guides the action and sets the tone and mood while still remaining abstract. The costumes are by Korey Kent and he dresses his characters in shades of black, white and gray while the second act brings brilliant splashes of red. All of these are very effective and totally appropriate to the character without calling attention to themselves.

C*** is about choice, se* and se*uality, about whether words like gay, straight or bise*ual are really descriptive of whom a person truly is and about whether one has to decide. “Who are you really?” someone asks, as if there can be only one correct answer, to which John replies, “I just want to be happy!” But sometimes hard choices are forced upon us and this script presents us with a searing example.

This is a play “theatrical” in the very best sense of the word. While the visual sparseness is both challenging and liberating for the audience, the naturalness of the dialogue grounds the play in character and place and reveals for us the dilemma of having to make hard choices often largely bound by convention. This is a unique piece of theater, and while the rapid pace and well done English accents may make comprehension difficult at first, it soon settles in and becomes the music of the piece, the sound of the voices as effective as underscoring, the hard consonants and lulling vowels creating their own subtext. Second Thought Theatre is to be commended for presenting this provocative and thought-provoking work.

Cory Michael Smith who played John in the New York production has this to say in a Playbill interview: “…I think the play’s more about asking why we try to figure these things out, why there has to be an answer, why there has to be a right or a wrong, why should anyone tell someone else they have to know what they are. It doesn’t matter.”

Second Thought Theatre
Bryant Hall, 3636 turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas, TX 75219-5598

Runs through February 22, 2014

Mondays and Thursdays at 7:30; Friday-Sat at 8:00. Tickets are $10.00 Student with valid ID & $25.00 adult. Mondays are Pay What You Can. For tix & info or call (866) 811-4111