June 21, 2019 | Todd Thomas
Michael Bartlett’s play, generally referred to as “The Cockfight Play” since the actual title is not as family or print friendly (think one syllable instead of four) presents a number of challenges in every aspect of production. It is the perfect kind of show for an “After Dark” series and represents the value of having a slot in the season where edgy shows can be produced. Pit & Balcony took a risk with this choice and after attending opening night, I believe their risk paid off.
The basic story is not particularly new. The protagonist, John, has had a long and sometimes satisfying relationship with his partner, M but through his daily travels to work, discovers W and falls in love. This love triangle would look like every other love triangle except for the fact that partner M (played by Jonah Conner) is a male and lover W (Maddy Paxson) is a female. This creates the existential dilemma for John that is at the center of this play. Who is he as a person and whom does he love? And how does the answer to one of those questions impact the answer to the other?
The action starts from the moment the lights come up and we see John and his partner M engage in a rapid-fire exchange that both sets the pace for the play and introduces the strained relationship between the two. Jonah Conner plays M with a sardonic and sometimes wicked wit that reflects what first appears to be dominance but clearly stems from something deeper. Conner maintains an amazing level of energy throughout the show with his multi-faceted characterization. He reveals M to us in layers and does so in a way that is not only entertaining but very powerful.
On the other side of John’s dilemma is Maddy Paxson’s W. Her challenge is to create a character the audience can empathize with as easily as Conner's. Paxson succeeds in developing her role, in my opinion with more depth and complexity than the script offered by Bartlett. Paxson’s use of humor and timing is well-done throughout while she manages to be both street-wise and naïve.
M’s father F is played by Dominic Pnacek. Pnacek is challenged with not only playing a role much older than his true age but also in playing a character that is in some ways difficult to place in the overall arc of Bartlett’s play. As a character, F was the least satisfying for me and felt in some ways that Bartlett introduced this character simply to prolong the conflict. We don’t have the opportunity to understand F’s real motives accept to support his son which means it would be easy for this to be a very two-dimensional role. Pnacek has clearly taken on this challenge and manages to be supportive and meddling at the same time…in other words, the classic parent. I had no trouble believing in the father role that he created.
While this show is truly an ensemble show, much depends on the characterization of John, played by Nathan Hanley. By the end of “The Cockfight Play” I could truly not imagine any other actor playing this role. Hanley runs on a reservoir of energy on stage that is enviable but also must be exhausting. Bartlett doesn’t give John much of a break from beginning to end, but Hanley doesn’t seem to need one. He reaches deep and has an intensity that will keep you locked in on him throughout the play.
The choice to go with English accents is always a tricky one. For it to work you have to go all the way or you’re better off not doing them at all. Director Chad Baker clearly trusted his actors to do the work necessary (there’s a lot of it) by adding this element to the play. The ensemble as a whole did a great job at this although at times the accent obscured the clarity of line delivery. This was most apparent at the beginning of the show when the initial energy takes off. But very quickly it settled down to a pace that was both quick and clear.
Baker’s other challenge was that staging and doing a show of any kind in the round has tradeoffs. Baker used every opportunity he had to keep the players moving. Because there is no set, no props and no pantomime in the show, establishing this movement as meaningful can be very tough. Often directors are driven only by making sure everybody gets an opportunity to see each actor. Baker used frequent movement but did so to communicate transitions to the audience. This aspect made being in the round an asset rather than a distraction.
Bartlett wrote this show to be minimalist which means that lights and sound are crucial as cues along the way. L’Oreal Hartwell’s sound design and Bailey Banks lights worked together very well to move us along from setting to setting and integrated nicely into the ensemble nature of the show.
While there is very little to criticize when it comes to the actors and direction of the show, the writing of “The Cockfight Play” adds to the challenge of the production. This might be more about me than the play, as Bartlett seems to want us to ponder the dilemma of identity, but regardless of what might be said, it seems at times that John’s real struggle is deciding who he wants to have sex with. While I might not be a fan of the writing, I am without a doubt a fan of this production. Find the time to see this show in its limited run and you won’t be disappointed.
General admission tickets are $15 and can be purchased anytime online, and in person hour prior to curtain. Show begins at 8:30pm and contains strong language and sexual situations and is intended for mature audiences.