Body Talk

No one in the history of the planet has ever been as enamored with neon fluorescent lights as Marianne Elliott.

Rest assured, she’s no one-trick auteur pony (though, this affectation’s similarity to J.J. Abrams’ “signature” lens flare makes me giggle). Given her predilection for loud theatrical flourishes that are so noticeably in your face that they basically demand to be reckoned with, the reoccurrence of neon fluorescent lights across three of her recent revivals — Angels in America, Company, and now Cock in London — is a form of directorial editorialization that asks the audience to analyze their varied usages, in relation to both the specifics of the individual material AND the relative roles they serve from show to show.

In Cock, the fluorescents quite literally spotlight the only other artifacts on stage at Elliott’s communicative disposal: the human body. Whereas Angels in America and Company were flush with technical spectacle, Elliott’s visual contributions to Mike Bartlett’s doozy reside almost solely in the relational movement of the cast’s relational bodies in relational space.

Can you tell Cock is about relational relationships, in addition to being about change (movement!) and the sexuality of different bodies, and where all these concepts collide?

Elliott strips the stage of any identifying features besides the characters’ amorphous selves. The playing space — the world of the play — is defined by the ever-evolving relational arrangements of the actors’ bodies. Fluidity of identity is the name of the text’s game, so the revival’s identity is rooted in physical fluidity.

Remember when I discussed Take Me Out and how theater is uniquely qualified to be a study of bodies in space? For Richard Greenberg’s claim-to-fame, nudity is a ringer within this evaluative calculus. On the flip side, Cock‘s deliberate avoidance of nudity keys us into the metaphoric dimensions of Elliott’s choreography; the characters mime unclothing without actually doing so, just one amongst an infinite number of indicators that their onstage physicality is not intended to reflect the corporeal reality of their bodies as they would appear if the scenes happened in “real life.” As such, the nature of the revival’s blocking is purely interpretive…much like the fluorescents.

In true auteur fashion, the cross-production connections and juxtapositions between Elliott’s fluorescent utilizations can prompt us to consider other overlaps between the revivals. And in Angels in America, Company, AND Cock, Elliott’s scene transitions are spatial dramaturgy.

In Angels in America, we lurch from one demarcated box to another, all together painting a picture of the spatial relationships between the contents of each scene; it’s a mutable, shifting tableau of constructs (thematically pertinent to Tony Kushner’s opus).

In Company, we follow Bobbie’s topsy-turvy, Alice in Wonderland-esque daily existence journeying from apartment to apartment in the characters’ shared building, dizzyingly bouncing off and tumbling through the chaos of her friends’ romances (and her own).

In Cock, the transitions dial up the abstraction of the movement, to a level akiner to interpretative dance, stylistically underlining (to the extreme) the importance of the production’s blocking. Matching how the characters struggle to glean internal truth from mutable exteriors, Elliot adds an extra layer of interpretative material between the play and the viewer; how does this suggestive sheen affect our perception and conception of the play?

Which intersects with the thematic bent of the production’s aforementioned lack of nudity: Cock is about the difficulties of accessing what’s underneath our deceptive surfaces. The surface reality of the production — the positional movement of bodies in space — is an interpretation of the characters’ reality; a representation of it, and not a lifelike portrait.

Elliot further expands the bounds of the play’s interpretive meaning through the minimalism of her non-body set design. The original production’s set was a cockfighting ring, granting the audience an obvious interpretation of the provocatively incendiary title (heck, the New York production was dubbed The Cockfight Play). Elliott’s stage looks nothing like a cockfighting ring; instead, the action is surrounded and dwarfed by floor-to-ceiling, hazy mirrors (can you say theme?). By refusing to let the set provide an easy answer as to why the play is titled Cock, perhaps the audience will mull all the ways that the word resonates with the play? How is it a fitting overarching description of what we see? What are all the aspects of the play that ‘cock’ might refer and be applied to?

For the record, audiences would be wise to always brainstorm all possible interpretations of a title; a “cockfight” is one interpretation, but not the singular interpretation, no matter the set design.

And Marianne Elliott’s Cock is nothing but interpretation.

You know, like relationships.

And identity.

And life.

Interpretation is the human condition of human cognition.

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