Review: Cock at Open Space Arts Is a Knock-Down, Drag-Out Good Time

Open Space Arts is a collective that focuses on work that combats homophobia and antisemitism. The current production is Cock by British playwright Mike Bartlett. In 2009, the four-actor show debuted at the Royal Court Theater in London, and it hit off-Broadway in 2012 before returning to London’s West End in 2022. Open Space Arts' playbill notes that the show has also been referenced as The Cockfight Play

Though the alternative title might reference the stage’s bare-bones setup and emotionally raw fighters, Cock is so much more than either its visual simplicity or its central conflict—the love triangle between John, his boyfriend M, and John’s new girlfriend W. As John experiences an identity crisis surrounding his previously unquestioned gayness, the script leads audience members through a string of quick-witted arguments, unforeseen moments of connection, and full-on farce. 

Open Space's black box theater space seats a modest 20 audience members encircling the stage area, which is empty except for a support pole in its center. Each scene is punctuated by a colorful change in lighting and sound cues that resonate somewhere between mechanical groans and chimes. (Sound design by Angela Joy Baldasare and lighting design by Justin Walker.) The 80-minute production, directed by Wren Wesner, contains only a few central scenes, though each has higher emotional stakes than the last. Bartlett’s keen sense for banter and repetition lends the script an almost musical rhythm, and this cast helps the material sing under Wesner’s direction. 

Elliott Hall as John is awkward but unpredictable, somehow both insecure and overconfident. He squares up against his on-again-off-again boyfriend M, played by Kevin Woodrow, who pushes the script to its greatest potential and provokes the majority of the ensemble's laughs (and gasps) from the audience. The pair's chemistry is clear from their initial moments together on stage, though the blocking often sets them apart from each other physically. Moments of intimacy are also played from afar, echoing M’s accusation that John is not simply pointing out the distance between them, but actively creating it. Exploring the boundaries and conditions of “unconditional love,” John reminds M that he’s promised to love him “No matter what, and this is what.” 

Sonya Robinson, Elliot Hall, Kevin Woodrow. Photo by Teri Talo.

Perhaps a literal stand-in for "what," W, played by Sonya Shea Robinson with compassion and fire, has a different relationship with John; it’s bubbly and calm, a connection grown through affirmation and curiosity. He puts his head in her lap, as they recall vulnerable moments from their 20s so far. Even in a scene facing away from each other, with their backs against the pole standing between them, their sensual bond is undeniable. (Intimacy coordination by Greta Zandstra.) 

The evening’s unexpected guest, M’s father F, played by Michael Lomenick, matches his sparring partners with gusto, all while maintaining a tenderness toward both his son and John. His role provides a sense of history, of generational changes in our culture’s conception of queerness and sexuality. He remembers a time of “persecution, prison, and cures” before the bio-essentialist “born this way” argument became a factor in the gay rights movement. Though he accepts John and M's relationship, he appears stuck in a past without an understanding of sexual fluidity, and he demands that John make a choice about his identity. Throughout the play, John encounters questions that might feel impossible for anyone to answer: What are you? Who are you? What do you want? Who do you want?

As W clarifies, she isn’t a "science experiment," “a way,” or a “function” for John to explore his sexuality. Still, their relationship becomes representative of a “normal” life for John, and a means for having a traditional family. On the other hand, his life with M is a once-comfortable box that he no longer fits into but is terrified to leave. The play is full of fantastic double-meanings and metaphors, often describing feelings and experiences in newly realized forms. M tells John when he appears passive and gutless, “You’re like a stream, and I want a river.” W says to John when he is being wishy-washy and erratic, “There’s so much emotional crap that orbits you, like you’re collecting space junk.” 

Altogether, this play is a confusing mess of newfound feelings and new levels of queerness, and for the emotional breadth that's covered, its rate of jokes-per-minute will leave you catching your breath between laughs. These powerful performers command a script that lands somewhere between a gut punch and temporary euphoria—so you'll want to factor in another hour or so to talk everything over afterwards. 

Cock by Open Space Arts, 1411 W. Wilson Ave., has been extended through May 11. Tickets are available here and are $25 general admission, $20 for students or seniors, $15 for OSA members. Running time is 80 minutes.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Row Light

Row Light (she/they) is a Chicago-based culture writer and editor. You can find their work at row-light.com.