‘Cock’ is Raw

In 2009, British playwright Mike Bartlett wrote a play with a vaguely provocative title: Cock. It’s about a gay man, John, who needs to take a break from his relationship with his boyfriend. During this hiatus, John meets and falls in love with a woman, which causes conflict and angst among the people close to him. The Unicorn Theatre, staying true to its mission of providing “bold new plays,” will open the show on April 22.
I was recently able to learn more about this unusual new play by invading a cast rehearsal. When I entered the theater, I noticed that, with the exception of the audience seating, the room was pretty bare. There was just a large circle with a metal railing around the edge. It looked like a cock ring. I mean, a cock-fighting ring. Anyway, the show’s director, Kansas City legend Jeff Church, and two of the leading actors, Jacob Aaron Cullum and Zachary Andrews, were gracious enough to take a break from their work and have a casual conversation with me about the play.
Camp: OK, first about the title. People I’ve been talking to are pretty confused about it. They want to know if the play is about penises or about roosters.
Zachary Andrews: Well, it’s sort of both…
Jeff Church: But remember, there are more than those two definitions for the wordcock. We actually looked it up and found eight. For example, there is “being cocky” or “going off half-cocked,” among others. We try to weave examples of various definitions. But yes, the story does kind of revolve around the concepts of the body part and of an actual cock-fight.
Camp: The main thrust of the plot is about a gay man who unexpectedly falls in love with a woman. Is this a story about a man discovering that he’s bisexual, or is it more complicated than that?
Jacob Aaron Cullum: Well, we can’t give away too much of the story, but that kind of is the question we’re exploring. The character I play, John, can’t seem to make up his mind about what he wants. It’s open to interpretation.
Church: He’s infuriatingly indecisive. But that’s the thing about labels. They don’t always fit neatly.
Camp: And this is a comedy, right?
Andrews: It is. It’s really funny.
Camp: I’ve seen this situation happen in real life a couple of times, when a gay friend falls in love with a woman. I can’t recall either of those situations being particularly funny.
Church: Well, it is British, remember. They can have a rather vicious sense of humor. And the story certainly isn’t funny from the point of view of the characters. But watching it from outside, getting that perspective, you can definitely see the humor.
Andrews: You know how you can have an argument, but when you drive home you think of the perfect comeback, and you want to turn around and give that comeback? These characters think of the comebacks right away.
Cullum: Yeah, they all have all the comebacks at the right time, and they go for the throat. If a character shows a vulnerable opening, the other characters will go for it. It can be kind of shocking.
Andrews: Yeah, Cock is raw.
We all look at each other for a second, letting Andrews’ words sink in. Then we all bust out laughing.
Camp: I just found the title of this piece.
Church: But it’s not all jokes. It makes some real statements. And there is a pretty intense sex scene. And even a strip scene.
Camp: Now we’re talking. Are these scenes very explicit?
Church: I can’t say any more about that. I just want that to be a cock-tease. Not a cock-block, though.
Camp: Given that the show opens this month, the set looks pretty naked. There’s just this fighting ring. Is the set done?
Church: Well, the floor will get another layer of clear-coat.
Camp: And that’s it?
Church: Yes. There are no props, and no miming — nobody is going to pretend to eat or make coffee or anything. The audience is forced to focus on the conversation.
Cullum: And that’s both interesting and a little intimidating for the actors. We’re up there, exposed, the whole time.
Andrews: But the subtext of what’s being said is still being acted.
Church: Yes, that’s another unique thing about this play. Above the character’s neck, it’s all about the words. But below the neck, it’s like the body is acting independently. The body language of the characters tells you how each one is feeling, whether they think they’re winning or losing the argument.
Camp: So the audience is able to keep score?
Church: Yes, kind of like that. If you look at the ring, and picture the center as the bull’s-eye, you can learn a lot about what’s going on by watching where in the ring the characters move over time. Or if they leave the ring.
Camp: Is this a show I can bring my grandma to?
Cullum: Well, that depends on your grandma.
Church: It is for mature audiences, and yes, it contains some graphic material. But one thing I’ve learned is that as people get older, many of them come to recognize characteristics of relationships that are true, even if they’re messy. You might be surprised at who can relate to the themes of the show, no matter how old they are.
Cock will run April 22-May 17 at the Unicorn, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. For tickets, call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org.

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