"Why is what I sleep with more important than who I sleep with?" cries the tortured budding-bisexual at the centre of Cock. That question has been asked in innumerable coming out stories, but in this case we are moving into a new genre that explores the world of the bisexual. Why not? Gays and transsexuals have had their moments in the theatrical spotlight but for the most part bisexuals have been used as punchlines or convenient symbols representing either sexual liberation or sexual confusion. Playwright Mike Bartlett aims to take the bisexual minority seriously.
Cock does not explain or make a particularly potent plea for embracing this contentious branch of the LGBT extended family tree, but does create a great deal of humour and melodrama in the examination of a specific example of the discovery of one man's bisexual orientation. Cock starts with intense drama before escalating into very British farce worthy of Wilde, Coward or Orton. The laughs are relentless but then Cock reaches for a earthshaking but ambiguous conclusion that chokes the laughs in our throats but, like the debates about the validity of bisexuality vs the rigidity of sexual roles, Cock is unable to reach a climactic resolution.
Structured as a series of verbal boxing bouts in a central ring, the audience is immersed in the action and the actors are incredibly vulnerable under close scrutiny. Fortunately they are up to the intense examination and give uniformly stunning performances. Jeff Miller (The Normal Heart) as the gay "M" gets the best lines and the most laughs. In a Boys in the Band-esque manner, the character wields bitchiness and one-liners as verbal weapons. With a slight arch of his eyebrow or a deliciously calculated pause, Miller launches his grenades and smirks delightfully when they land right on target. But Miller refuses to be a stereotypical vicious old queen, he slyly shows us the pain and emphasizes the truths behind each quip. Cock is verbally and emotionally daring but visual titillation is all conjured theatrically - this gives Miller an extraordinary moment where he figuratively strips nude and, still fully clothed, achieves a visual of utter emotional nakedness.
Cock begins with excerpts from the slow destruction of M and John's relationship. The relationship finally explodes when, while separated, John sleeps with a woman and, even worse, develops an attachment. Andrew Kushnir, so spectacular in The Gay Heritage Project, as John is a bundle of repressed energy. With his mop of curly hair, dragging down jeans and expressive eyes, it is perfectly understandable why he is an object of sexual desire. Unfortunately the character, as written, is never able to convince the audience why anyone, male or female, would want to establish an emotional relationship with him. Kushnir cranks up the charm and gives a virtuoso performance but, when the point is that John's conflicts are a superficial/indecisive dilemma (he never speaks of love, only of the appeal of sexual organs), we are unable identify with his despair. Kushnir shows us the agony and makes us empathetically feel it, but it is a triumph of acting over text.
Jessica Greenberg is a cool and intelligent sex bomb as "F," the woman who rounds out the triangle. Watching the smart voice of reason surrender to physical passion during an exceptionally hot sex scene is very subtle but strong acting. F initiating John into the pleasures of a woman is hilarious, heartbreaking and disturbingly arousing. She is the one character whose devastation pierces the audiences' hearts. Rounding out the quartet is Ian D Clark - playing the "A" in the "ally" appended to the end of LGBT but here referred to as a second "M" - whose character is a surprise that should not be ruined in a review. Kicking the hilarity into high gear, he is utterly adorable and terrifying, embodying the family member we all wish we had or, as in all things Cock, fear.
Cock never flags for a second and is, in a very good way, a bit of a dizzying experience. It offers no solutions but explodes stereotypes and generates more heated after-show discussions than any other play in memory. Miller's M refers to the evening's events as the "Ultimate Bitch Fight" but, unlike an Ultimate Fighting Championship match where sex roles are fairly solidly established, there is no clear-cut winner. No winners except for Cock and the audience.
Cock continues until Sun, April 27 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St W. studio180theatre.com