The first time I saw Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things was at my small Midwestern liberal arts college, the same setting as the play itself. Afterwards, my friends and I walked out, mouths hanging open, stunned at the drama’s shocking conclusion. Eclectic Full Contact Theatre’s version, currently at the Athenaeum Theatre, also surprises– but for different reasons.
At first blush, The Shape of Things is deceptively simple. Its the story of an awkward, anxious undergrad named Adam (Andy Blaustein), whose life is turned upside down by Evelyn (Michelle Annette), a passionate 25-year-old in the graduate school’s arts program. He meets her as she’s on the brink of vandalizing a statue at his workplace, and this first scene–Evelyn raging on the nature of art, truth, and beauty, while Adam watches in awe, not sure whether to arrest her or ask for her number–sets the stage for their volatile romantic relationship.
Over the course of the year, Adam, strongly encouraged by the controlling Evelyn, slowly changes. He loses weight. He upgrades his fashion. He even gets a nose job. His friends, the engaged Phil (Josh Leeper) and Jenny (Martha Reddick), express first delight, then concern, over his transformation. The charged dynamics between each member of the foursome give the play an undercurrent of unease that escalates until the last scene, at Evelyn’s thesis presentation, when everything you thought you knew is turned upside down.
Directed by Katherine Siegel, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre’s version uses innovative audiovisuals to update the piece–and, more impressively, add to the story–without interfering with the original script. In between scenes, the two screens flanking the stage display screenshot-style videos of the characters’ Facebook timelines, Snapchat stories, Youtube clips, and Instagram feeds, seemingly updated in real time. You can see Adam post a picture of Evelyn sleeping, with a caption about how obsessed he is. You can see Jenny clicking on her Pinterest board titled “Don’t Show Phil,” with articles about how to tell if your husband is cheating. These videos play in between scenes, accompanied by modern pop songs like “Bang Bang” by Jessie J and “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd. Though sometimes gimmicky, these additions do a lot to make a 2001 play seem at home in 2016.
Unfortunately, the play’s content is overshadowed by the stilted acting. Blaustein, who carries the weight of the show, turns Adam into a caricature. His hunched posture, squeaky voice, and exaggerated gestures are sometimes painful to watch. The Shape of Things hinges on the chemistry between characters, and it’s hard for relationships to sizzle when you can’t take the lead male seriously. Annette’s Evelyn suffers from some of the same overacting, but really shines in the last few scenes. In a soliloquy directed at the audience, you can really feel Evelyn’s fire and unshakeable belief in her artistic vision. It’s unfortunate that Leeper has the least time on stage, as he portrays the most believable character, imbuing his Phil with both humanity and bubbling rage.
Eclectic Full Contact Theatre does an admirable job reworking LaBute’s layered, dramatic story for the social media generation, but the cringe-worthy acting puts a damper on this rendition.
The Shape of Things runs two hours with no intermission. Catch it at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, through March 6. Tickets are $17-27 and can be purchased here.
Photos by Jami Nakamura Lin.