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It was called Cock in London, but by the time it crossed the Atlantic to New York, Mike Bartlett’s stripped-down, three-hander Gordian knot on sexual identity had a new title: The Cockfight Play. “The New York Times wouldn’t print the title, Cock, so he allowed them to call it The Cockfight Play,” at least that’s what Rogue Machine Theatre’s artistic director John Flynn told Cameron Watson, who is currently staging the play’s West Coast premiere through Nov. 3. It opened last week with the Los Angeles Times referring to it as Cockfight Play, but the L.A. Weekly went with the original title.
A 2010 Olivier Award winner, Bartlett’s play often bears no title on the cover of its printed version, just a picture of a rooster. It may seem coy but it more accurately reflects what the play is about. John (Patrick Stafford) breaks up with M (Matthew Elkins), but then meets W (Rebecca Mozo) and begins an affair. She’s the first woman he’s ever slept with and he loves it, he tells a shocked M. Confronted by both M and W, John grapples with the idea of choosing between homosexuality and heterosexuality when his initial attraction to W had little to do with sex. Cock calls into question the unwarranted need for labels in matters of the heart.
As per Bartlett’s meticulous notes, the play is staged in an empty space with a green background. Without any props or furniture the actors remain standing throughout, even through dinner scenes and sexual encounters. As they metaphorically circle each other, an image emerged in Bartlett’s mind as he wrote — a pair of gamecocks squaring off in a pen. And that’s where the title comes from, so stop snickering.
To present a play in such a minimalist style is freeing, but only if the material is strong enough and a deep level of trust exists between cast and director. Watson, a graduate of HB Studios and an equity waiver veteran, has teamed with Mozo on numerous productions but only just met his male leads, Stafford and Elkins.
“It was definitely a little bit of a dance. But very quickly in the process the trust factor became very present for all of us,” Watson tells The Hollywood Reporter about working with his cast. “They are very naked and exposed and I have had to buoy and support them to trust this concept, especially in the early stages. They were questioning at one point, really, we’re just going to stand here and look at each other and move this way? People were definitely curious as to how it would work.”
So is John gay, straight or bi? The question misses the point. According to Bartlett, John isn’t choosing a sexual preference, he’s choosing a person, but sex gets in the way. When asked what he wants, John responds, “I just want to be happy.”
“That’s at the core of our lives every day, sexuality, professional, I just want to be happy today,” observes Watson. “So he experiences this thing with his heart and has to grapple with what am I doing and how do I fit this in with the label of being a gay man.”
For answers to these questions, Watson might have directed them to Bartlett as he customarily develops a strong rapport with the playwright on any piece he’s directing, but not this time. “He doesn’t offer answers but he certainly offers the debate of what is it in the human heart that is important,” says Watson, who purposefully avoided contact with Bartlett and believes his production is richer for it. “It’s a fascinating question and I think people are going to walk away from it having the discussion of what is love, how are we happy?”
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Jamie Lee Curtis