Fraction shapes

Sins against humanity are nothing new — war and suicide bombings and world suffering are dished out by television news shows like daily horror shows. Yet despite our familiarity with life’s everyday hard knocks, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the kind of sadistic exploitation exposed in Planet Ant’s current production.

Playwright and director Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things is an uncomfortably raw play about the human psyche and its connections to the definition of “art.” Told through the lives of four very different characters, the play centers on Evelyn — an artist whose callous need for personal glory leaves many in her wake — and her lover Adam. (All painfully obvious Garden of Eden references forgiven.)

The couple first meets when the seductive Evelyn takes a literal and metaphorical leap over the velvet rope that protects a pristine sculpture in her university’s museum. In the name of art, she has decided to deface the antiquated masterpiece, as she does not approve of the strategically placed fig leaf on the statue, and, as a result, intends to deface the masterpiece by adding a graffiti phallus. When the clumsy Adam, a security guard, attempts to thwart the vandalism, an immediate connection is made. The couple embarks upon a semester-long love affair.

At first The Shape of Things appears to be nothing more than a modern love story between two unlikely sweethearts. But the relationship, as it turns out, is rooted in much darker earth. The couple endures near-constant conflict, always initiated by Evelyn, who, through constant Q & A sessions, turns every day into a “learning experience” for Adam. But she remains steadfast to her own ideas about love, life and art; she is rarely, if ever, accepting of alternative views.

From the very beginning, the eccentric “artiste” attempts to pick apart the shy Adam’s mien. Within a week of knowing each other, Adam undergoes a systematic makeover. First goes the nerdy hairdo, then the love handles. Eventually, wardrobe and self-confidence start to improve. Adam’s slightly bulbous nose even gets an update, courtesy of some anesthesia, a scalpel and a hefty plastic surgery bill.

And while Evelyn’s Svengali ways are apparent — to everyone except Adam — their purpose remains unclear until the very end of the play.

Evelyn’s character is meaty and complex, sometimes displaying glimmers of deep philosophical contemplation. At other times, her constant antagonism and unctuous countenance suggest spite. Actress Shannon Camara Sanville does a good job of homing in on the character’s misanthropic nature, all the while keeping the audience in the dark about her true intentions. Sanville delivers a lengthy monologue at the end of the show that, by virtue of its importance to the story, cannot be phoned in — she nails it.

Adam, played by Patrick Michael Kenney, is in many ways the more learned of the two. While the audience will sometimes be charmed by his unassuming character, it is very easy to project feelings of insecurity and disappointment toward his plentiful and all-too-human flaws. A natural shyness is evident in the actor, a characteristic that, while a potentially crippling trait for a thespian, suits his browbeaten character in a way that belies any theatrical pretenses. He is highly likable and easy to identify with.

The supporting roles of Phillip and Jenny, played by Nate DuFort and Shannon Ferrante, respectively, bring the story together. DuFort, a pupil of the Second City camp, offers great comic relief to his castmates, while the diminutive Ferrante plays the small but important role of an über-vanilla coed very well.

While Planet Ant’s production still has a few performance flubs and missed music cues to iron out, the questions raised by this play are impossible to ignore. LaBute, author of such edgy films as Nurse Betty and Your Friends and Neighbors, has a knack for exploring interesting territory. Even when he treads the waters of the unlikely and absurd, his perspectives are refreshing. The Shape of Things digs in to the sometimes-flawed facets of life, love and art, and thankfully doesn’t pander to the played-out conventions of storytelling and perfectly happy endings.

At the Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff, Hamtramck; 313-365-4948). This play is for mature audiences and includes incidental nudity. Runs Thursdays through Sundays until Nov. 28.

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