En­fants ter­ri­bles This Is Our Youth & The Shape of Things


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Levin The New Mex­i­can

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

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