Student-run play opens tonight

'The Shape of Things' explores the turmoil of young relationships

His cast of four standing on stage in the McDonald Recital Hall, senior Dave McLellan shares with them his expectations for this evening's dress rehearsal.

"I don't want you to call line; I want you to fake through it and go all out," McLellan said. "If we nail it we're golden. If not, that's OK -then we've got some work to do."

A great deal of work has already gone into McLellan's production of Neil Labute's "The Shape of Things."

"We started about five and a half weeks ago with rehearsals, but I've been working since June myself," McLellan said. "It's a really exciting experience for me. I've funded this myself. I've done it from the ground up. Financial support has come out of my college fund for next semester. The actors are doing it for no credit, no club, no sponsorship."

Understandably eager to work out any kinks before the shows on Thursday and Friday evening, McLellan certainly doesn't mind a little more work.

He first came across "The Shape of Things," which tells the story of four American college students, while studying in Sydney, Australia.

"You could imagine my excitement - a chance to see my own culture portrayed on an international stage," McLellan said.

Yet, he felt a disconnect between the Australian actors and the American college experience. Their inability to convey that experience awakened in him a new appreciation of his own undergraduate years.

These thoughts led him to wed his senior Honors Capstone project with his desire to connect to his generation and communicate the formative importance of the American college experience in shaping American culture.

"It's been a long time since there was something students could relate to. I wanted to bring a play for the students," he said.

Replete with dorm room drinking, videotaped sex, vandalism, art, Dickens, aesthetic theory, lust, angst and love, McLellan's production captures facets of a life many students at AU and colleges around the country can point to and happily or unhappily call their own.

But more than any of the above, Labute's dialogue, tweaked by McLellan and his actors with "likes" and "ums" and punctuated pauses, resonates in the ear and in the mind as authentic. Honestly, name a play that quotes TV show lines. One of the two female characters, Evelyn (Erica Santo Pietro), breaking into a mock Chinese voice, readily refers to her love interest Adam (Michael Fulvio) as "Grasshopper," a reference to the Kung Fu series.

It is refreshing to hear dialogue informed by the millions of lines of movie and TV scripts reproduced each day by young people across America. This authenticity creates trust with any young audience.

"This style of theatre is really different than the stuff I've been studying," said Rebecca Coren, who plays Jenny. "It's a heightened situation but normal speech. Very real and very normal."

Coren's observation is one the elements of the production's brilliance: the simple language sculpts a complex, moving on stage drama.

In its simple style, "The Shape of Things" tells the story of Adam, Jenny, Evelyn, and Phil (Justin Biedrzycki), four students in a small college town. Phil and Jenny are engaged, Adam is an unconfident, somewhat squirrelly literature student working two jobs to pay student loans, and Evelyn is an artist.

Evelyn and Adam fall for each other after Adam tries (and fails) to prevent Evelyn from spray painting a penis onto a neutered statue. Through the course of their relationship Evelyn's daring and bravado influence Adam, as he takes more and more of her image sculpting suggestions. He gets contacts, loses weight, stops biting his nails and discards his old jacket, lovably referred to by Phil as "the frumpy mother f---."

According to Biedrzycki, the frumpy mother f--- is the straw that breaks the camel's back in the relationship between former roommates Adam and Phil, and it is at this point in the play, the frustrating but important scene six that things begin to unwind.

Some of Adam's changes, most notably in the personal aesthetics category, are for the better, sort of. His increased confidence and good looks helps rekindle the old flame between Adam and Jenny. Evelyn kisses Phil in reprisal. The varying details of each of the four's acts of love with and cruelty toward one another surface in a few uncomfortable, confrontational scenes.

Amidst all this relationship turmoil, the question of art is never lost. Whether through quotes from Oscar Wilde or the argument between Phil and Evelyn about art and stupidity, the question looms pregnant over the relationship between the four characters.

Fulvio describes the interplay. "I see art on top of these relationships. They come together in the end in a beautiful way that hopefully knocks people's socks off."

Heed Fulvio's warning. Despite the cold, it might be in prospective audience members' best interest not to wear socks, at least for the play's climax, which will leave the audience riling with empathy and raging a war in its head, heart, and soul.

McLellan sees the play's art as a way of looking at how we as a generation are forming. "In my perception, it's about the youth of America and what's going to happen next. We change as Adam changes. What's changing us? It makes me question is it love or cruelty and the answer is subjective."

McLellan's actors had only praise for his vision and talent. "Dave's awesome. He's an easygoing guy, and he's on top of it. He's a student but he knows what he wants," said Santo Pietro.

Of his own experience, McLellan said, "The entire experience has taught me about theatre and about school." The words are terse, but they exhibit the profound respect McLellan now has for his undergraduate years and for the power of his chosen media to impart values to his generation.

After the rehearsal, McLellan receives compliments and notes from Department of Performing Arts director Gail Mardirosian. He then gathers his actors and stage crew. Looking at the notes, he says with a confident air, "Well, we've still got some work to do."

The show is playing in the McDonald Recital Hall in the Kreeger Music Building Thursday night at 9 p.m. and Friday night at 8 p.m. Tickets are $3.

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