Shawn Macdonald, Donna Soares, and Nadeem Philip play the love-triangle in Rumble Theatre's Cock. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Shawn Macdonald, Donna Soares, and Nadeem Philip play the love triangle in Rumble Theatre's Cock. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Cock really is satisfying. Okay, now that I have that out of the way I will resist the urge for additional double entendres.

Truth is though, the Rumble Theatre production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively (and unfortunately) named Cock is more than simply satisfying, as it asks some interesting questions about sexual identity.

John is at a crossroads. In a long term relationship with an older man, he eventually hooks up with the attractive woman he sees his daily commute to work. Discovering that sex with a woman isn’t as foreign (or as repulsive) as he first thought, he finds himself falling for her. The two even begin to talk of settling down and starting a family.  Problem is, John just can’t seem to let go of the relationship with his male lover.

While the title of the Bartlett’s play may immediately conjure images of a particular male appendage, it also refers to the cockfight that we are about to witness. In this cockfight though, the prize isn’t survival, but John himself.

Taking that metaphor to its extreme, Bartlett prescribes that the audience is to surround the action as if watching a real-life cockfight. Production designer Shizuka Kai delivers, with raked seating placed around two different concentric rings painted in the middle. No doubt the two rings are meant to symbolize both fighting and safety zones, but there is little time to contemplate their real significance as director Stephen Drover keeps each “round” moving so briskly that even the fittest bantam would be exhausted by its end.

The idea of John as the prize in this fight is at first a difficult one to swallow. He is the embodiment of the man-boy; petulant and self-serving, how his two paramours don’t run screaming from the ring is a wonder. But after that initial judgement, you quickly come to realize that Bartlett has skillfully crafted John into a sympathetic character; against all common sense we are as drawn to him as much as the two fighting for him in the ring.

Helping immensely is Nadeem Phillip’s mesmerizing performance as John; with his rumpled boyish good looks, he seduces us as much as he seduces the two fighters. Almost constantly on the move, his gestures are wild, yet somehow totally natural, and there are small glimmers of a strut that helps bring the cock metaphor into focus even further. Even as John inflicts pain through his indecision, Nadeem makes him so likeable and watchable that you may actually leave the theatre feeling sorry for him.

Duncan Fraser, Shawn Macdonald and Donna Soares. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Duncan Fraser, Shawn Macdonald and Donna Soares square off in the ring. Photo by Tim Matheson.

As the man and woman, identified only as “M” and “F” in Bartlett’s script, Shawn Macdonald and Donna Soares are equally as solid. Even as M falls prey to John’s power, Macdonald’s vulnerability is heartfelt. Soares manages the delicate move from strength to a position of weakness with ease. As the interloper in the fight, Duncan Fraser plays the father to John’s lover with authority, although on opening night much of his dialogue at the top of his entrance was lost to those behind him.

Ultimately Cock asks us whether the labels we use to identify our sexuality can be universally applied. Is it enough to simply identify or to be seen as gay, straight, or even bisexual? But Bartlett’s answers to those questions aren’t perhaps quite as satisfying as the play itself, and no doubt many will be surprised by who leaves the ring victorious, even if it is just a TKO.

Bartlett recognizes and challenges the ease and comfort we find in placing things into neat little boxes. Probably as much as we all like a good Cock(fight).

Cock by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Stephen Drover. A Rumble Theatre production on stage at Performance Works on Granville Island until November 8. Visit http://rumble.org for tickets and information.