Alexandria's Tapestry Theatre Company is exploring several new frontiers with its production of Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," a chilling study of art, gender roles and our obsession with appearance. It's a rewarding artistic voyage.
In presenting a fairly new play that is edgier and more challenging than most community-based fare, Tapestry is experimenting not only with material, but also its presentation. The troupe is temporarily performing in a "black box," abandoning the traditional large proscenium stage. In a black box, an empty space can be reconfigured, including the seating, into any shape for a specific creative approach, much like an artist in LaBute's play does with another person.
Tapestry has restructured a gutted space in an office building. The fifth floor of 206 N. Washington St. in Old Town now resembles an art gallery that theatergoers encounter immediately after they get off the elevator. Rather than sitting far away from a formal, raised stage, as they do at Tapestry's usual home at the Lee Center, audience members relax in the new space in comfortable, overstuffed chairs close to the actors. It is not just more pleasant; the intimate setting also enhances the effectiveness of the storytelling.
Working just feet from the audience, the superb cast of four doesn't have to worry about projecting voice or character to the far reaches of a large auditorium and can be more natural. Of course, the proximity also puts the actors under a microscope, making any shortcomings all the more obvious. But the cast, crisply directed by Ember Martin, holds up well under the scrutiny, and LaBute's razor-sharp dialogue, provocative plot and most of his dark themes are vividly realized.
At a conservative, small-town college, Evelyn (Aimee Meher-Homji), an outspoken, artistically aggressive graduate student, easily wins the heart of Adam (Dan VanHoozer), a socially inept and unattractive undergraduate English major. Evelyn is soon manipulating Adam, getting him to adopt a more flattering hairstyle, trade in his nerdy glasses for contact lenses, dress stylishly, lose weight and take even more drastic measures. By all outward appearances, he becomes an improved version of himself. Plus, he's having great sex.
At some point, a discussion of which would be a spoiler, a moral line is crossed, leading to a breathtaking scene that both draws in and repels the audience. But that moral line is not always clearly identified and subjectivity and objectivity in art both get completely twisted. Is one of the great villains in theater created here? Maybe. Or maybe not.
"The Shape of Things," first staged in London in 2001, became an off-Broadway hit and helped propel Holly Twyford into the top ranks of local actors when Studio Theatre produced it in 2002. Tapestry's version approaches Studio's accomplishment, with outstanding performances from Meher-Homji and, particularly, VanHoozer, who undergoes a remarkable physical and psychological transformation during the uninterrupted two-hour play.
VanHoozer fully inhabits the character, is believable as both nerd and stud and ratchets up the emotional intensity until it becomes almost unbearable. Meher-Homji is striking as Evelyn, warm in the couple's quiet moments (Martin has eliminated the play's nudity) and utterly reptilian in her coldly analytical view of art and people.
Julia Stemper and Jeffrey Golde do fine work as Dan's worried friends, helping Meher-Homji and VanHoozer create completely dimensional performances by giving them both an opportunity to showcase different facets of their characters.
One flaw is that there is no theatrical lighting to enhance the moods of various scenes. It is a low-ceilinged space, but a bit of creativity could solve that problem. Another is that LaBute seems to be saying something about the nature of evil with those cute names, Adam and Evelyn, underscored when Evelyn takes a big bite from a juicy apple. It's your guess what that message is, but making you wonder may be art to LaBute.
"The Shape of Things," performed by Tapestry Theatre Company, concludes this weekend on the fifth floor of 206 N. Washington St., Alexandria. Showtime is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, visit www.ticketleap.com. For information, visit www.tapestrytheatre.com.