Photo Gallery | The Shape of Things rehearsal at the Whitney
PITTSFIELD — Director Matthew T. Teichner likes to challenge his audiences. That's why the roster of shows he's directed in New York's Capital District over the past 15 years includes "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "How I Learned to Drive," "Spring Awakening," "Open Admissions," "Rent," "Tommy" and "Angel City."
"A hallmark of the shows I direct is to give audiences something to talk about after. If an audience leaves and feels not at all charged, I haven't done my job," Teichner said in a recent interview.
This weekend and next, he's challenging Town Players of Pittsfield audiences big time with Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," an unsettling drama about a small circle of friends and lovers and would-be lovers in a small college town in the midwest and what happens when one of them becomes intimately involved with a newcomer to the group and all at once the rules begin changing and the dynamics start shifting.
"I have wanted to do this play for 13 years," Teichner said during a joint pre-rehearsal interview with his cast at the Whitney Center, where the production opens at 8 p.m. Friday. "It's a nice chamber piece, all about character.
"It seems like a straightforward piece but once you go down that rabbit hole you find how complex it really is."
"The Shape of Things" premiered at London's Almeida Theatre in 2001 with a cast that included Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller, who reprised their roles when the play came to Off-Broadway's Promenade Theater later in 2001 and again in a 2003 movie.
Ostensibly, "The Shape of Things" is about art — the nature of art, how we perceive any work of art. Dig deeper and find that LaBute's play wrestles with the nature of image, self-image and relationships — how we perceive ourselves in and out of relationships, how others perceive us. The play asks how far any of us would be willing to go to satisfy the perceptions others have of us, how readily perceptions can be changed.
"The Shape of Things" focuses on Evelyn (played here by Leah Marie Parker), an assertive, sexy graduate art student who is working on her graduate project, and Adam (Jerry Greene), a shy insecure undergraduate who works part-time as a guard in the college art museum, where he and Evelyn meet by chance. His transformation as their intense relationship develops over the course of the play gives "The Shape of Things" its dramatic arc, especially as that transformation affects his relationships with his best friend and former roommate, Phillip (Thomas Suski) and Phillip's fiancée, Jenny (Alanna Bassett in this weekend's performances, Dana Grieb next weekend), who has had a longtime serious crush on Adam.
"You always want to change things in someone," Greene said, reflecting on Evelyn's effect on Adam. "You feel, at some level, people want to be different. want to change, are looking for someone to hold their hand. And when they find someone they love, that makes it easier.
"Adam follows a large character arc in the play and there's not a lot of time to make that journey. so you have to be specific in the choices you make as an actor."
For his part, Suski says, Phillip, who won Jenny while Adam hesitated about moving their relationship from friends to lovers, "sees Jenny as a physical attraction. She's submissive," Suski said, "and he needs to be dominant.
"I think everyone in the audience will know someone like Philip. I think in some ways he's the one who ends up losing the most."
"Jenny's a girl I'll never be," Bassett said. "She keeps to herself a lot. She's naive, vulnerable. She really doesn't fight for what she wants, especially when it comes to marriage and family. For her, Philip is simply good enough. Deep inside, I refuse to let my Jenny be small and diminished."
Evelyn, the mover and shaker in all this, is deeply committed to her art. "She'll make her statement as an artist at all costs," Parker said. acknowledging that it took some time for her to connect with the character. "And then," she said, came a turning point in rehearsal, "a physical inspiration," she called it. She's been having fun ever since.
Evelyn not an easy character. manipulative, calculating. But looks. as LaBute suggests, can be deceiving.
"We all have facades," Grieb said, "but there usually is something else going on underneath. I think Evelyn's purpose is pure, more pure than most. In the end, does she change Adam from who he really is?"
"I think Evelyn very likely has some sociopathy, an incredible need to shape the world to meet her needs," Teichner said.
"I feel some empathy for her. The audience needs to feel some empathy for her and not see her as evil.
"She can't fill those empty spaces within her. She (tries) by drawing from Adam and making him an empty husk. And yet, she can never fill her emptiness. She's created out of negative space.
"I think this is all about a transformative moment for both Evelyn and Adam. They've all been betrayed, in fact, and so the question becomes what happens afterward. What is possible for them?"
What: "The Shape of Things" by Neil LaBute. Directed by Matthew T. Teichner
Who: Town Players of Pittsfield
When: Friday through March 20. Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Sunday at 2
Where: Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wernmdell Ave., Pittsfield
Tickets: $15 (general admission); $12 (seniors and students); $10 (Town Players members)
How: (413) 443-9279; townplayers.org