Theater review: “The Shape of Things” by Different Strokes

Image from Different Strokes' production flyer

Everything is subjective, right? We filter our own views into what we see, and thereby create a wholly unique experience. Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective‘s daring new show — Neil Labute‘s The Shape Of Things — is made all the more stunning by the innovation of two different casts of actors taking on the same script.

Different Strokes founder Steph Hickling Beckman directs both casts, letting each group present its version of the script. The story has a lot to do with the eye-of-the-beholder concept, especially in how others view, and often alter, those close to them. In this case, it is frumpy and somewhat meek Adam, played by Desmond Zampella and Nathan Singer. While both play the role as the awkward introvert at the beginning, the paths diverge after they meet the character of Evelyn, who begins to exert her influence on Adam, inspiring him to change into a more attractive and confident person.

Samantha Stewart and Meg Hale Brunton portray Evelyn. Their interpretations of the role dictate much of the tone of each production, which kicks off with Evelyn meeting Adam as she prepares to deface a piece of art in the museum where Adam works. Both actresses are exceptional in the role. Stewart is more darkly mischievous while Brunton is pluckier. Stewart’s show has a slightly sexy and sinister tone to it, while Brunton’s is more sweetly sincere. And both work. In fact, a major twist in the plot actually packs a bigger impact with Brunton and Singer, as it feels more unexpected. We can’t help but sense that there’s another shoe to about to drop with Stewart and Zampella.

Adam’s old roommate, Phil, and Phil’s fiancé, Jenny, are supporting characters. These roles are performed in the darker of the two productions by Maximillian Kroger and Emily Crock, respectively. The dynamic is one of an awkward triangle as Phil quickly detests Evelyn. One plotline reveals that Phil ended up with Jenny after Adam was too shy to ask her out. In the other production, a bold choice to flip the genders of the supporting roles makes for some interesting moments that question stereotypes. Adam and Jamie (not Jenny), played by Allen Law, have a romantic attraction, while Phyl (not Phil), played by Devyn Ray, is a female ex-roommate. This defies the social norm, which is slightly jarring in a few places and poses a challenge to the audience’s acceptance of the new dynamic.

Each production is a fine presentation and, while they both contain the same words and story, it’s worth seeing both productions just to experience how starkly different they are. This is another creative triumph for Different Strokes, which continues to raise the bar for brave works.

The Shape Of Things runs through Saturday, Sept. 19, at The BeBe Theatre (20 Commerce St.), with performances Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Check differentstrokespac.org for more info on what cast is performing at each showing. $15-$25.

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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