The title of the bold, new play at Fells Point Corner Theatre is a provocative, monosyllabic word not suitable for public radio. In polite company, Mike Bartlett’s award-winning drama has come to be known as “The Cockfight Play.”
And though cockfighting isn’t mentioned in the script, at Fells Point Corner, director Steve Goldklang has clearly been inspired by it. Two roosters, ready for combat, are painted on the back wall of designer Roy Steinman’s bare set; a large dark red ring is painted on the floor.
In addition, Goldklang begins many scenes with a bell that sounds like the start of a prizefight round.
But unlike prizefights – or cockfights – there are three sparring characters: A Man, identified simply as “M”; a Woman, identified as “W”; and John, who is sleeping with both the Man and the Woman.
David Shoemaker plays John with boyish charm. Donald Charles plays the Man as manipulative – a bully. The two men have been in a long-term relationship when John suddenly announces he’s become involved with a woman.
John’s inability to decide between the Man and the Woman makes up the plot of “The Cockfight Play.” No subplots. Just a lean look at a modern-day romantic triangle.
The writing is taut and sharp -- qualities well-realized by director Goldklang’s skilled cast and striking staging. A strong warning: The play contains profanity and sexual content.
There’s no nudity, though. The director uses mere suggestion when the characters undress as well as when they eat or drink. In the final scene, when a dinner brings the three principals together, along with the Man’s father, the actors circle the seating area like a game of musical chairs. It’s an apt visual metaphor for the plot.
John, however, doesn’t care where he winds up or with whom. He simply drifts into situations. That’s how he got together with the Woman. Portrayed by Barbara Madison Hauck, this character is as assured as John is unsure.
But while John drifts into things, he has no idea how to drift out. And, no idea what he wants – except, perhaps, not to be forced to choose and not to be labeled. As John becomes more indecisive, he becomes more unsympathetic. Knowing who you are is an attractive trait; refusing to know sets everyone – including the audience – on edge.
British playwright Mike Bartlett has written a play as sparse and raw as, well, a pair of fighting roosters in a cockfight. Bartlett is also the author of the acclaimed, larger-scale drama, “King Charles III,” which opened on Broadway last month. Kudos to Fells Point Corner for introducing Baltimore to this important young writer – a writer with a gift for making theatergoers as uncomfortable and involved as the characters on stage.