Enfants terribles This Is Our Youth & The Shape of Things
THIS IS OUR YOUTH & THE SHAPE OF THINGS
IFthere is one way to describe the body of work by playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute, it would be that in his dramatic world, men and women are not kind to one another. Whether on stage or on film — in such fare as In the Company of Men and Fat Pig — his characters manipulate and debase their friends and loved ones in morally ambiguous ways, often with a coldness that could seem like sociopathy. In The Shape of Things, opening Thursday, March 23, at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Greer Garson Theatre, a comely art student seduces an English undergrad and makes him over from top to bottom. He changes his hair, his clothes, his nose, and his friends for her, amid a script chock-full of banter about the nature and meaning of art. The Shape of Things is directed by SFUAD senior Triston Pullen and shares its run with another student production, Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, opening Wednesday, March 22. It is directed by Bryson Hatfield, also a senior at SFUAD.
Pullen, a native of Sulphur Springs, Texas, told Pasatiempo that he usually gravitates toward melodramatic stories like A Streetcar Named Desire or August: Osage County. “There are a lot of so-called tricks to be made in those plays — high action, big conflict,” he said. “I didn’t pick The Shape of Things. My professor, Jon Jory, picked it because he wanted me to focus on the human connection and really just home in on the specificity of the work.”
The Shape of Things, which premiered in London in 2001 and starred Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz, is set in an unnamed Midwestern college town. Evelyn (played in the SFUAD production by Rachel Wagner) is earning her master of fine arts degree in applied theory and criticism and is currently working on her thesis project, an “installation thingy” about which she provides scant detail. Adam (Brad Martinez) is a part-time security guard at an art museum, where he meets Evelyn just as she is about to vandalize a statue as a political statement. Soon they are dating and she is arguing about feminism over dinner with his pal Phillip ( Jerome Arrey) and Phillip’s demure fiancée, Jenny (Celena Rose). Pullen described Phillip as a “frat boy,” though the character is not in a fraternity. Phillip and Adam, unlike Evelyn, are townies. Pullen relates to Phillip and Adam, explaining that he grew up in a tiny town with a college 30 minutes away that many locals attended, and he knew plenty of guys reminiscent of LaBute’s characters — a little desperate to seem like big men on campus. Wrestling with new ideas, as the characters do in the play, is familiar to Pullen. He arrived at SFUAD for his freshman year as a conservative Republican but has since changed his tune.
“I was raised Southern Baptist and went to church whenever the doors were open. I was gay, but no one in my hometown ever had a problem with that.
At church, they would skip the sermons that might be degrading to me,” he said. “I think I still have very conservative views — I’m fiscally conservative — but I realized I do have more liberal ways about me than I thought.”
LaBute explores the responsibility of the artist to subject as well as who or what gets to define the meaning of art. Though the play’s aesthetic concerns are strongly anchored in 1990s performance art as exemplified by the likes of Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle, the themes — if not the art discussed — are still fresh, such as why Phillip is so threatened by the very ideas he is in college to study and the difference between art and personal promotion. “Evelyn’s art is pure manipulation. I think she’s the student who takes it to the extreme for her art, whether it’s good or bad. I was told once that it doesn’t matter how good your art is if it defaces humanity, and I think her art defaces humanity,” Pullen said.
One of the running jokes in The Shape of Things is how badly Evelyn misjudges Adam, assuming he is less sophisticated than she is as she attemps to change him into a more physically perfect person. Adam routinely makes literary references — to Kafka and Shakespeare — that Evelyn never understands. This theme of perceived class distinctions has echoes in This Is Our Youth, about Dennis (Adam Troyer) and Warren (Lee Vignes), two guys in New York City caught in the years between high school and full-fledged adulthood, whose lives revolve primarily around getting, doing, and selling drugs. The play is set in Dennis’ apartment, which is paid for by his parents, and the plot hinges on a suitcase full of money that Warren brings over, some of which Dennis wants to use to finance a small-time cocaine deal. It quickly emerges that they are both from wealthy Upper West Side families of artists and intellectuals. Though both boys have difficult relationships with their fathers and legitimate emotional baggage — and in Dennis’ case, a tendency toward rage — the heightened chaos of their daily lives is of their own making. They are high all the time and have trouble keeping track of what’s going on.
Lonergan, who recently won an Academy Award for the original screenplay for Manchester by the Sea, has a distinctive way of describing characters within stage directions, using evocative, almost purple prose in a quick sketch. Dennis is a “fanatical and bullying kind of person,” a former “dark cult god of high school” who has not quite realized that his old shtick doesn’t work in the real world. Warren is a “strange barking dog of a kid with large tracts of thoughtfulness in his personality that … infrequently influence his actions.”
“As a cast, we’ve approached Lonergan’s character descriptions with a meticulous process of looking at every adjective, making sure we know what every word means, that we know all the synonyms for the words. The playwright chose them for a reason,” Hatfield said. Before transferring to SFUAD he attended college in New York City; in 2014 he saw the play on Broadway with Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera, and he previously played the role of Warren in a community theater production in his hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho.
Though Lonergan set his story in 1982, the only obvious period markers are the absence of cell phones and a bit of talk about Ronald Reagan. As in The Shape of Things, the characters in This Is Our Youth are roughly the same age as the SFUAD student actors who are playing them. “In a way, it really scared the actors how close they are to these characters and how they are at the same turning points, which you don’t always see as they are happening,” Hatfield said. “The theme that keeps coming up in our discussions is that we don’t have to become our parents. That’s where the hopefulness comes in. This could definitely be played as a dark comedy that ends with a question mark, but it doesn’t have to be like that.”
Adam Troyer and Lee Vignes in This Is Our Youth; above, Rachel Robyn Wagner and Brad Martinez in The Shape of Things; photos Francois Achan