Regional Reviews: Chicago
For those who think of LaBute's characters as misogynistic, note that in this play, it's a woman who's the evil and manipulative one. On a small Midwestern college campus, the socially awkward undergrad Adam (Andy Blaustein) meets an attractive graduate student, Evelyn (Michelle Annette), as she is about to deface a sculpture at the art museum where Adam works. Evelyn appears to be romantically interested in Adam, and they begin to date. Over the course of their relationship, she convinces him to dress better, work out, lose his glasses in favor of contact lenses and even get a nose job all in service of becoming more physically appealing. Evelyn also wrecks Adam's friendship with the engaged couple Phillip (Josh Leeper) and Jenny (Martha Reddick) and even spoils Phillip and Jenny's relationship with each other.
So, does having a female antagonist make the play misogynistic after all? Or naming her Evelyn and having her lead Adam astray? Is it fair to bring up original sin as a means of blaming women? Some will argue that point, but it's also fair to note that Adam chooses to betray his own values as he is so easily bedazzled by Evelyn's looks and the thought that he could snag a girl like that. So who's the shallow one? Look only to LaBute's later plays Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty to learn the author's feelings on how physical attractiveness or perceptions of its presence or absence can mess up an otherwise good relationship.
Evelyn and Adam are tricky characters to pull off. We have to buy into Adam's interest in Evelyn but all the while, see her manipulativeness and Ms. Annette is better at showing Evelyn's dark side than her seductiveness. Blaustein works a little too hard at Adam's awkwardness and could do better by toning that down and just playing the character without commenting on him. The characters of the engaged friends Phillip and Jenny are flawed people as well. Leeper's performance captures those nuances well, but Reddick needs to dial up Jenny's darker side some more. At present, she seems mostly a victim when the script tells us she also has some mistakes to own up to.
Director Katherine Siegel has updated the action of the play to the present by adding some inter-scene projections of social media interactions between the characters. Facebook chats and posts, Instagram photos and Vine videos indicate the offstage action between scenes in ways the characters would certainly communicate today and this addition helps show the gradual changes in the characters, particularly. The simple set by Laura Carney is sufficient to tell us where we are and what's happening, but Catherine Tantillo's costumes could better show Adam's transition from sloppy dresser to a "What Not to Wear" alumnus.
Still, The Shape of Things is a must for any serious student of LaBute. Like his later plays, The Shape of Things shows the writer's skill at creating realistic characters and dialogue and using extraordinary circumstances to challenge the way we treat each other.
The Shape of Things will play through March 6, 2016, at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. For tickets or further information, visit www.eclectic-theatre.com or call 773-935-6860.