By Zara Stokes Neustadt
In this updated iteration of Cottage, a Durham Drama Festival Original by Ben Willows, a deal of “just sex” morphs effortlessly into an exploration of the human connection at the heart of the play. Directed by Maddie Hurley and produced by Ellen Olley, this feat of darkly comedic drama guides an audience – likely unaware of the intricacies of the cottage – through its emotional strings, allowing for accurate insight into the social perception of homosexuality: Achievement Matters given the production exists outside a specified period. Using timelessness in this way breaks the usually opaque face of dating a difficult subject in an intangible past; relevance to gay culture and emphasis on individual nuances is demanded by Cottage.
Notably, a minimalist ensemble of two toilet stalls and discarded paper cements the place as unloved but uncompromisingly intimate – with the public becoming private in the focus on the two men. Aided by selective lighting changes, the play’s world fades to emphasize glimpses of true relationship and revelation. Therefore, Georgia Malkin’s influence as stage manager and set designer (not to mention assistant director as well) manifests with an effective attention to detail; elevating the immersive atmosphere as well as each actor’s ability to establish themselves within the clear frame.
Ben Lewis as “One” captivates from the first scene. The immediate presentation of a desperate and terrified pensive shines in his silent introduction to the scene; immediately setting a high level of physical and emotional embodiment. Lines that might be overplayed for comedy, characterization that might play as awkward in Lewis’ transformation into a middle-aged teacher are communicated with unconscious hilarity and empathy.
Likewise, Stephen Ledger as “Two” possesses a sense of suaveness and sexual bravado in the main section of the piece, forming a pleasing counterpoint to the stiffness of “One”. It’s his final moments of brutality and tenderness, however, that I think more fully capture Ledger’s skill – a particular highlight being the second kick in the play. Here, her physical gentleness and Hurley’s direction reach a wonderful interplay to turn sexual desire into an expression of solace, of being wanted, so wanted by both men.
Undeniably, the chemistry of “One” and “Two” bespeaks the efforts of director and cast – in particular, the touch’s transition from reluctant and discordant between the two (or humorously overt, with Ledger hunched over the toilet coming to mind ) to sync into a gloriously expanded second (almost) kiss sequence. Although the monologue provides exposition for each character, similarly constituting a deepening of the relationship, the often downcast faces of the actors can obscure the audience’s connection to the action, and the commitment falters at times in the slow unfolding. heavily interrupted speeches. That’s not to say that Lewis or Ledger radiate less emotional nuance in these moments, but the room is made more vulnerable to energy dips due to the combination of frequent quiet moments with naturalistic lighting and decor.
As for nuances of character, Darcy de Winter’s “Three” explodes on stage with vocal playfulness and a crisp, responsive delivery: a delight to witness, and an admirably committed dwelling of such an extreme character. However, some instances of the sudden screams – while cleverly convincing and shocking – seem slightly incongruous with the action. Despite this, the difficult and sometimes vague character is approached in a thoughtful way that captures the full attention of the space.
Ultimately, the tight set of three plays masterfully to complement and contradict each other, underscoring Willows and Hurley’s exploration of sex and connection. Over the course of the hour-long play, an arc is sustained and filled in both satisfying and heartbreaking fashion, as, in perhaps the play’s most poignant crux, the first two numbered characters become named – becoming viscerally real. By coaxing tragedy into more superficial examples of genuine comic prowess, each component member of CottageThe creation of displays a vital commitment to detail and development, resulting in a piece that is simply professional.
Image: ben willows