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‘The Shape of Things’ in review

Educational fads go in cycles. Right now, for instance, we are replaying much of what went on in the late 1950’s after the launch of Sputnik. Then the frenzy was over science education. Now it’s over STEM-science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These are all, to be sure, important subjects, but both in the 1950’s and now, the tendency of the reformers is to overlook the humanities, which is a troubling omission. We need the humanities to help us understand ourselves, each other, and the rest of the world. I like to think that the humanities make us more human (though the etymologies of the words are actually more complicated than that simple scheme indicates).

But if the humanities make us more human, how do we explain the monstrousness of so many of our great writers, artists, and musicians? How do we explain the viciousness of a great composer like Richard Wagner? Not only was Wagner a fervent anti-Semite, but in his personal relations he was less than admirable. For instance, he fell in love with Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima, which would have been fine had she not been married to one of his best friends and supporters, Hans von Bulow. So Wagner and Cosima ran off together, but he still expected von Bulow to conduct his operas. Which, amazingly, he did. Wagner, pretty much everyone agreed, was despicable, and yet he wrote such great music.

If you would like to look more deeply into this subject, I would recommend that you read Father Owen Lee’s book “Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art.” I would also recommend that you visit the Bartlett Theater on the Fredonia State campus this week or next so that you can see the current production of Neil LaBute’s play “The Shape of Things.” In a little over two hours (with no intermission), this play examines questions about art, about human relationships, about love, and about responsibilities. This is a play that does what a play should do: it entertains, but it makes us think.

What is art? That question may be nearly impossible to answer, which of course is what makes it such an important question. None of the most important questions can actually be answered. It’s our thinking about them that is so vital.

At this point, I will stop talking about the play itself, because I don’t want to give any indication about the plot lest I reveal the interesting sub-plot. But I will happily talk about the outstanding performance. The play uses only four characters, so each one has a heavy responsibility. Fortunately, all of the student actors live up to that responsibility. Danielle Izzo is perfect as Evelyn. She goes from being imperious to tender without transitions, and until the very end we cannot be sure why she behaves as she does. And Taylor Sheehan, as the much more conventional Jenny, brings out the life in what could be an otherwise very timid character.

Nick Stevens is fairly repulsive as Phil, a comment which should be read as a compliment, because Phil actually is fairly repulsive. And Kevin Stevens, as Adam, is simply outstanding. In the play’s two hours, he goes through two complete transformations. And not only are these actors individually excellent, but they work together extremely well. One scene, in which the four engage in a loud argument, takes on the character of a verbal and rhetorical ballet, thanks also to director Jessica Hillman-McCord.

So, if I haven’t made myself clear, let me conclude by saying that this play is well worth seeing. Let me stress that it is intended strictly for adults. Children will have no idea what is going on, and some scenes are inappropriate for younger folk. Performances are on April 25, 26, May 2, 3, and 4 at 7:30 and April 27 at 2.

Theodore L. Steinberg in a professor in the English Department at SUNY Fredonia.