There is a thrill for me, in attending ATYP’s under the Wharf program – and it may seem like an obvious statement to make – but this is one of the most valuable programs showcasing emerging theatre makers in Sydney. This is the platform where we can see the art and ideas of the artists who will one day be in charge of theatres across Australia. This is where it starts – and for me, it is the place to go to see what is hot in the eyes of the under 26ers. Last slot, WOOF/meow presented a new Australian work “Parkie” as a part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

On this occasion, a team of recent Actor’s Centre graduates have formed pantsguys Productions and presented Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” as their offering.This is pantsguys Productions second production following on from a season of Neil LaBute’s “autobahn” last year. There is something about Actor’s Centre graduates – they have a get up and go spirit which is highly energetic and enthusiastic. (Infact I declare my hand here – I too have been hired to direct Hilary Bell’s “Wolf Lullaby” by an ACA graduate collective… and last year Paige Rattray directed Bronte for Illyria Productions and atyp’s Under the Wharf program). What produing your own work does is put your money, time and talent where your mouth/career/artistic integrity is: if you want to be in it – you make it! And I know without a doubt such an experience really is invaluable -especially if you’re an actor and you don’t know what a producer does, you certainly learn pretty quickly what’s at stake.

On this occasion, Sam Haft is at the helm of this production. An actor I have enjoyed in several productions including Stephen Colyer’s New Theatre Production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and Anthony Skuse’s Darlinghurst Theatre production of “Pool (No Water).” He is one of the Sydney Theatre landscapes much respected acting teachers, practitioners and a pure gentleman. This is also his debut in the role of “director.”

Sam Haft’s director’s notes for this new production reads like an artist statement. Reads like, because it is. Like that piece of paper or plaque displayed as an explanation, justification or defense of work, Haft asks us to look beyond what is shown in “The Shape of Things.” “[It] is understandable, particularly for those familiar with LaBute’s other works, as we are dealing with an author who often encounters the term misogynist in the same sentence as his own name.” And I agree with Haft, theatre is what we make it – as audience and/or as artist. But I do believe a few fundamental things: that artist intent is only worth what is/can be understood by the audience. Yes, we bring our own baggage and background to theatre and our own frame work – but it is the writer and director who will guide us through the ideas, character, story. The director balances the play’s origins and intent with the contemporary context in which it is performed – political, cultural, social – and the audience receives a message. On this occasion it is not the production of this play that asks us to look beyond what is shown – but the director’s note. I generally don’t read media releases or programs before I see plays – I like the shock/surprise delight adrenalin burst of spontaneous discovery/delivery of dialogue. So I saw the play first (my first time) and read the directions second.

The Shape of Things is largely an exploration of several questions “what would you do for love?” “what would you do for art?” “what are you willing to compromise to please others?”

The plot goes along the lines of: When Adam Sorenson (Tim Rueben), an English Literature major nerd meets an attractive graduate art student Evelyn Ann Thompson (Rebecca Martin), his life takes an unexpected turn. Evelyn becomes a great influence on Adam’s life improving his diet, exercise regime, appearance and boosting his self esteem effecting his relationships even with his best friend Phillip (Graeme McRae), and Phillip’s fiance, Jenny (Cat Dibley).

The interesting ideas in this play include notions of free will and dominate power in relationships, one’s willingness to transform for someone who loves you, the ethics of art, the subjectivity/objectivity of truth. The unfortunate aspect of this play is that Evelyn’s character is surprisingly clear -her force and her righteousness is unshakable -we never have a chance to see her vulnerability, fears, her dreams, we only receive didactic blasts of sedition and discussion. She’s pretty, but also pretty unlikeable – and so cliche that we push her into the “crazy chick” basket pretty quickly. I don’t think this is the doing of Haft nor Martin – I don’t think there is anything they can do to control or influence this character’s relationship to the audience, except perhaps write a director’s note.

The cast are clearly committed to what they are doing – present, ready and comfortable on stage with each other. Martin is suitably articulate and powerful as Evelyn, Reuben is sweet and awkward as Adam. Dibley is a bright burst of energy and McCrae ambles along amicably. It’s a tight team. The scene work is intense and clear, and the actors take great care of each other. Set design by Tom Petty is clever, functional and flexible, but unfortunately quite cumbersome and some manoeuvers on opening night slowed the overall pace of the production but I’m sure this will become smoother as the run rolls itself along. Teegan Lee’s Lighting design is unobtrusive in the scene work and artful in transitions. It’s a solid team and a solid show.

My quibbles are with the content- largely – the writing. I’m not sure if LaBute is a misogynist – he might be a misanthropist as the men aren’t given much in the way of strength or empowerment (unless it s arrogance) – in fact they are all pretty unlikeable folk and it is a portrait of how people tear each other apart, more than “how women destroy men.” I must say I struggled to understand why the play was performed in American accents… I think the acting challenges of wrangling American idioms and syntax in an Australian voice are much greater than mimicry of accent.

That being said – I utterly concur with Sam Haft – that we should all make sure the post show discussions are robust, articulate and brave in dealing with the ideas. I urge all those emerging artists intending on working in the theatre industry to head to the show, see it, then spend 3 hours debating the ideas, the execution and the cultural implications of this production and script at City Extra over a cup of English Breakfast Tea. That is what it’s all about. That is the purpose of art. Discussion, development, the unravelling of an idea so we can sew up our opinions… go on. Check it out. Have an opinion. You’ll enjoy having an opinion. I for one, am thrilled Haft and pantsguys have given me the chance to have one. Thank you.