Review: Mike Bartlett’s ‘Cock’ presented by Do It Live at the Firehouse Arts Collective in Berkeley (*****)

(Barry David Horwitz)

(Rating: *****)

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(“Cock” runs through March 22, 2015 at the Firehouse Collective in Berkeley.)

You can find lots of reasons to attend Do It Live’s current showing of Mike Bartlett’s play, “Cock.” First of all, Bartlett won the Olivier New Play Award for 2009, for the Royal Court Theater premiere in London. Secondly, it’s the second time within a year that “Cock” has been produced in the Bay Area. Third, this young Do It Live group, formerly performing in the City, under the lively direction of Will Hand, is bringing us European plays of note with vigor, charm, and wit. And a nice dollop of sensuality, too.

If you have not yet discovered Do It Live, now is the time: Get thee to see “Cock” this weekend, Friday or Saturday for V-Day, or soon after — maybe more than once — it’s worth it. The storefront theater at Adeline, where it meets King, just south of the Ashby BART Station, is hard to recognize as a theater —there’s a grocery store on the corner — but worth the search — don’t give up. Settle in on chairs or cushions, and enjoy a production as good as anything you are likely to see Off Broadway in New York.

The play opens, bare stage, bare room, bare emotions, with rapid fire debate between John (Andrew Akraboff) and his boyfriend M (Carlos Mendoza). They are arguing about a misunderstanding, parrying swiftly and aggressively; with John, a tall blond boy, clearly playing the submissive role, to his partner, M’s more dominant and assertive, dark and bearded presence. But John tries to assert himself, as the younger and more “sensitive” and developing partner, through the first scenes of the play. They argue back and forth, swiftly rehearsing the stages of their several years together. We are not sure which to side with, the brief scenes start and stop abruptly and shockingly, demanding complete attention and concentration on the sharp dialogue in a no-holds barred developing crisis between them. It feels like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at times — but pared down, quintessential, and even more alarming for the miscommunication and familiar projection and misunderstanding they display so openly.

John, an appealing and confused young guy, claims he needs to escape the influence and dominance of M, which must stand for Man. He makes a convincing argument and we are drawn to his victimhood and his charm. He tries to charm his way back into M’s good graces with a Teddy Bear, which M dismisses as kitsch and John insists should be endearing.

Whom to believe here? They are both trading in the totems of love, neither entirely convincing.

As the play progresses, we also get scenes where M seems to be more forgiving, wiser, more forbearing than his protégé. Maybe John is manipulating or maybe he’s making a healthy revolt against his overbearing partner? Fascinating and hard to say — the scenes fly by with intimate sexual debate and desire filling the charged stage. Bartlett comments on our symbols of love, our attempts to seduce and deceive. It’s pure drama, no frills — dashing from one side of the room to the other, in a tennis match of wits, bodies, and unexpressed emotions. We can read into their every interruption and interrogation — they split, they return, they recriminate — with an economy of word and gesture nearly astounding.

“Cock” is more riveting than any soap opera.

Later, Bartlet introduces a young woman into the mix.  Serra Neiman plays her (the character is only called “F”) as a modern woman with credibility and gusto, smart, sophisticated, attractive. She and the young John seduce each other.

We are hooked by all these complications — Will Hand even introduces a volatile and briefly naked sex scene between John and F — see the details for yourself — and it works to shock and enliven what’s at stake here — honesty, sensuality, intimacy. Which couple has it, which does not? Can both be true?

Additional surprises in the second act lead to a grand climax without set, without props, but a slash of alarming contact amongst the actors, leading to a smashing and unexpected ending. It’s pure drama, no trimming, no wasted words or transitions. It’s bracing.

Bartlett’s terse, witty dialogue suggests a poetry of emotions, a code of love that is waiting to be broken. He argues for love between people, regardless of social codes and demands.

“Cock” is a black comedy for the ages. Bravos to playwright Bartlett, Director Hand, and Do It Live Productions.

For further information click here.

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“Cock” by Mike Bartlett, presented by Do It Live Productions. Director: Will Hand. Production Manager: Maggie Manzano.

M: Carlos Mendoza. W: Serra Naiman. F: Johnny Mercer. John: Andrew Akraboff.

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