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Manbites Dog production dares to raise, embrace questions

Sit down in the audience of the provocatively-titled "Cock" and you suddenly find yourself in the midst of battle. Characters take swings at one another, some more biting than others, wrapping into a complex affair of love, attraction and lack thereof.

As a piece of theater, "Cock" employs a rather minimalist approach. Out of the four characters, only one character has a full name, John, while the male love interest, his father and the female love interest are called M, F and W, respectively. There are no props, no costume changes and only one noise beyond the actors' voices. A gong punctuates time and interaction, propping up the ‘cock fight’ motif that serves as the inspiration for the play’s promotional materials as well and provides the structure to the play. Along the same lines, the play is performed in the round, an ideal setup for John and M to throw punches within the constraints of the audience ring.

I’ve been told that the qualities you don’t like in other people are in fact the ones you don’t like about yourself. This is an apt description for why I was so quick to scorn John, played by Duke senior Phil Watson. Simply put, John is cripplingly indecisive. It’s easy to hate the parts of John that lie within ourselves, despite quietly relating to him. Throughout "Cock," John cannot decide who he is (gay or straight) or what he wants (his comfortable, long-lasted relationship with M or his fresh foray into women with W).

John’s decision-making paralysis opens up the space for M, W and even F to take control. M (the expressive Gregor McElvogue) does so with childish whining and fabrication, whereas W (Emma D. Miller, T'12) does so gently but with self-assuredness. Because John cannot choose on his own, the choice of who makes the better pair is left up to the audience. Choosing sides between M and W is a challenging affair, as W’s sweet affection for John is a point on the scoreboard for her, but then again, M is loyal and clearly needs John.

Questions of sexuality are thrust into the front of your mind throughout "Cock," but a stark age difference between John and M creates a curious additional layer. The love we see between John and M at the start of "Cock" seems true; the chemistry between the two is genuine. John is teased by M but it seems to be only out of affection. When W is brought into the equation, she presents a difficult question to John—does his role as the younger counterpart to M stunt personal growth?

The bigger question of the play is addressed head-on during the ‘awkward’ dinner party where F's attendance is haphazardly announced. F struts in and proceeds to berate John for even considering a woman, given that being gay is in his nature. W takes issue with this. She asks, if F's son is gay by nature, then where is F’s gay gene? Both are fighting for selfish control: F’s definition of sexuality means that John must stay with his son, and W’s definition lets her justify their newfound intimacy. In this conflict lays a quick synopsis of the play: is John simply experimenting physically with W, as M suggests, or is he actually emotionally attracted to her?

But it’s how "Cock" ends that forms an entirely new question: should it even matter? It’s a bold proposition that we shed the questions about our sexuality and the other identities we embrace—or push away—in order to just be.

It can also seem like a forced proposition. I found myself wincing at the preachiness of it all, especially during John’s speech about how love shouldn’t be restricted by categories. But, I’m willing to swallow some preaching if it means following a suspenseful love-tinged whodunnit, more precisely named who-does-he-love?

We never get the answer, but that’s kind of the point.

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