Heart and Soul 

Three contemporary plays examine the nature of love.

Juliet took poison. John Hinckley Jr. shot the president. While most of us won't go that far for love, we'd probably move cross-country, pass up a sought-after job opportunity, or make some kind of physical change. Three stunning new area productions pose the question of what we'd do for love, or seen another way, what love could make us do. The plays also address issues such as the true value of art, the desire for fame, and the nature of male friendship.

Of the three plays, the most shocking is The Shape of Things, a new work from Neil LaBute that makes its Bay Area debut at the Aurora under the direction of Tom Ross. LaBute is known for the controversial film In the Company of Men, which followed to the logical conclusion the behavior of two men who thought so little of female humanity that they made a game of seducing and then cruelly dumping a woman they believed weak and vulnerable. Company raised quite a hue and cry among feminists, many of whom -- confusing the execrable characters with the author, or simply not interested in paying nine bucks to watch a woman be abused -- boycotted the film.

The Shape of Things is the flip side of the Company coin, making the point -- as a friend once so aptly if crudely put it -- that "assholeism knows no gender." Here it's a woman preying on a man's vulnerability for her own ends, convincing him to sacrifice things he cares about, and subtly revealing in the process (as Chad did in Company) her own deep scars.

Dweeby college student Adam meets beautiful, confident Evelyn when she comes to the museum where he works, intent on refashioning a sculpture to suit her own aesthetic. They begin a relationship that will change him forever, while leaving her more or less the same. Like House of Blue Leaves and Deep Space, Shape has a surprising conclusion that I've sworn not to give away, but I'll say this: if you skipped Company and LaBute's other films because you like happy endings, you might want to pass on this one too. But if you like theater that really makes you think, Shape will keep you up nights.

The brilliance of the work lies in the fact that LaBute, even as he offers up characters we would like to believe don't exist, shows how they could. Much of Shape will be uncomfortable for anyone who's fantasized about changing their partners in some way. As Evelyn and Adam's friend Jenny talk about how Adam is evolving, Jenny muses that her fiancé Philip is "six things short of being perfect." We are reminded that while both men and women refashion themselves to attract and hold the sexual attention of other people, women speak of it much more freely, both when it comes to changing oneself ("Be the Hottest You!" coos Cosmo) and changing your man ("Dear Cosmo," writes a reader, "my boyfriend's otherwise-perfect butt has acne. How can I tactfully get him to deal with it?") Our social structure encourages women to "improve" men, and LaBute puts that sort of thinking under a powerful microscope.

Craig Marker is painfully earnest as Adam, who doesn't quite understand what Evelyn sees in him, but is so besotted he's willing to overlook his misgivings. Marker has a moment alone near the end that is as beautiful as it is difficult to watch. As Evelyn, Stephanie Gularte is tart and persuasive, bright and sharp. Watching her shred Adam's pal Philip is a guilty pleasure for anyone who's ever disliked his or her partner's friends. Philip (Danny Wolohan) is indeed a boor, yet he clearly cares about Adam. Unfortunately the two men are trapped in the sort of relationship where they can't really help each other without losing face. Arwen Anderson's Jenny turns out to be the closest thing to innocent in this batch; she's the polar opposite of Evelyn, all uncertainty.

The set design and the way scene changes are indicated are very important elements. Kate Boyd's set is anchored by a group of white boxes, moved around with drill-team precision by production assistants Jamie Riley and Adam Fisher, which creates the impression that the characters never quite leave the sterile confines of Adam's museum. As in Company, location changes are heralded by titles and explosive music. It's like watching an experiment in a lab, something unethical that nonetheless will yield a greater understanding of the human soul.


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