By Mark Howell

 

Reviewed by Mark Howell

 

Who would have thought – or for that matter, who wouldn’t have thought? – that a play by the name of “Cock” could actually turn out to be a quivering drama of human identity that leaves an audience gasping for air and deeply fulfilled.

 

Both title and a blood-red stage refer to the cockfight pits once common in the Keys and this latest production by Key West Fringe continues its tradition of staging productions in unusual locations. Its theater-in-the round set-up at The Studios of Key West transforms the place into an inner space for the tightest of fights.

 

Written by Mike Bartlett and a Critic’s Choice award winner, “Cock” is about what happens when two men who have loved each other sexually for a long time are cleaved by a woman? And what if the three of them come together for a dinner at which the father of one of them arrives? And what if all this is staged without props, cleaved of details yet adhering to them like demons? “Cock” is what we get and yourself is what you see.

 

Michael Castellano is John, the only named character, both wistful and yet quite grand; we feel for him all the way. Dave Bootle is M and his triumphs and his losses are just as moving. Nicole Nurenberg is W., the stranger in the pit and as cocky as anyone in the play. Michael Mulligan is F for dad, at the peak of his form, bound to carry the night. These four performers, let me tell you, will squeeze and not let your guts or gonads go.

 

They’re a team here, each of them acting bare, taking positions as much physical as psychic.

 

The clawing and the boxing are enacted by stance and through tongue. “I’m about to make a decision for you,” and then a bell signals the end of the round. It’s scary. The heart chokes.

 

Producers of this hair-raising show are Peter and Monnie King, who saw “Cock” in the round at ground level in Coral Gables and with high-tiered seats in New York. Their own vision of a cock-fighting ring is like an exploded Ikea store (there’s a good Ikea joke in the play) and it suits the Old Armory perfectly.

 

A word about the director, Murphy Davis, who has returned to Key West after a long absence. Colleagues in theater in New York and Sag Harbor included his longtime collaborator Sybil Christopher (better known to you and me as first wife of Richard Burton), plus Julie Andrews, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Roddy McDowell, Elaine Stritch, Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards and Sidney Lumet. He’s done a masterful job with “Cock” and we’re glad to have him home.

 

Key West Fringe is doing the right thing. Finding spaces that bring living theater to center stage at the  Gardens Hotel, the Old Fire House, the Woman’s Club and now the Studios, they’re bursting eyeballs and having fun.

 

This latest production is about sexual identity and it’s addressed to all of us.

 

Take the risk it. Go see it.