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A Cock-a-doodle wakeup call 

What the censored word really means in QCTC's latest

As a noun, cock has a long, proud history, stretching back past key appearances in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet, all the way back to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where the word was spelled c-o-k. Cock has also had a colorful odyssey as a verb, coupled most memorably perhaps with camera shutters and our beloved, god-given firearms. But as the title of Mike Bartlett's award-winning comedy, Cock has often had to lurk in the shadows — even with poster art that clearly suggests a rooster.

While the New York Post and New York Magazine were crowing their praises of Cock last year during its off-Broadway run, the lordly New York Times sniffed and hedged, calling Cock "a terrific comedy with an unprintable name" and nicknaming the Olivier Award winner "The Cockfight Play." But surely such laughable prudery could never spread to Charlotte, just 75 miles north of the Fighting Gamecocks, right?

The upcoming production of Cock at Spirit Square, presented by Queen City Theatre Company, should have shown up in The Times, which only recently removed the hyphen from "email" and deigned to use "tweet" as a verb. But oh my dear, the mere idea of Cock on a poster — or the word broadcast over the radio — has ruffled some surprisingly sophisticated feathers here in Charlotte.

Blumenthal Performing Arts will not allow the title on its premises, where Queen City is renting Duke Energy Theater for its final performance there. On tickets sold by CarolinaTix.org — and in lights shining from the Blumenthal's Tryon Street marquee — the title of the show will be "C__k" (The Cockfight Play).

Initially, WFAE told Queen City Theatre that a radio spot would be no problem, but managing director Kristian Wedolowski asked the account rep to doublecheck. Sure enough, a subsequent email broke the news: Cock cannot defile the NPR affiliate's airwaves.

Nobody is trying to fluster anyone, artistic director Glenn Griffin insists. He was intrigued by the play when he saw ads for it during his stay in New York last year.

"So I bought the script and read it, and I loved the language of it," Griffin recalls. "It was such a great modern depiction of two gay men in a relationship and what could possibly happen. Kristian and I really thought that it would be a great show to put on our schedule. It hadn't been done around here, it was new, and that was before either of us thought that putting Cock in the newspaper would be difficult. I mean, who would've thought? It just means rooster. I mean, come on!"

Playing John, the central character, Wedolowski finds the Cock brouhaha especially funny, because it's not only based on an infantile over-reaction to the title, it's actually a misunderstanding of the word.

"Bartlett himself explains that cock in England is slang for asshole, and that's what this show title refers to," says Wedolowski. "Like this guy who is being fought over by a man and a woman, and essentially he's playing this entire situation.

Or to put it bluntly — Wedolowski is playing the title role, the asshole.

Yet the makeshift substitute title for this comedy also applies, for M and W battle for John's love with anything but British reserve. Griffin, who also directs, will play John's arrogant bitchy boyfriend as M, facing off against Iesha Hoffman playing W, the siren who is trying to steal John from him. Prepare for bloodsport as the action climaxes.

"It is a real cockfight," says Griffin. "That's why I really love the play, because it is these people tearing each other apart with words, and in one part, M finds that part of her that is so insecure, and he just rips into it until she's thoroughly belittled. Then she does the same to me because I put on this bravado of knowing who I am, but at the same time, I don't want to be alone."

Hank West rounds out the cast as F, John's father, enlisted by M to help him battle against the she-monster he's only imagined. While F is partly on hand to steer John toward the question of whether, after coming out of the closet, he will be regressing to a former, safer, more conventional self if he chooses W, John's staunch and manipulative indecision gets looked at as a tenable position.

John is resisting all labeling, even bridling at the suggestion that he is bisexual. So the showdown between M and F isn't merely the determination of a winner and a loser; it literally threatens to be a defining moment, when John must declare who and what he is. And he isn't ready yet!

"We really do put so many people into a box and say they are gay, they're straight, they're this, they are that, they are polyamorous, instead of allowing them just to be who they are, to be people and to love," Griffin says.

Policy changes at Blumenthal Performing Arts, calling for shorter runs, more austere production values, and no Sunday matinees, have precipitated Queen City's decision to leave Spirit Square. Yet Griffin and Wedolowski are appreciative of the support they've always received at Duke Energy Theatre, do not see the Cock publicity impediments as a fight, and are parting amicably with Blumenthal officials. As Blumenthal wants Spirit Square to become more of an incubator for emerging companies, Queen City has reached a crossroads that is parallel to John's in Cock.

"We were maximizing the use of the space with shows like Next to Normal, Xanadu, Evita, always with larger sets maximizing the use of the infrastructure," Wedolowski says. "We were bringing in a lot of light fixtures that maximize the use of their controls, their sound system, and really the space is not prepared for that. It's time to move on, and I think it will be for the better."

Like their infamous poster, some blanks need to be filled in on Queen City's future plans — including when, where, and how. But after selling 25,000 tickets over the past seven years, Wedolowski and Griffin have expansive plans for the future. Fortunately, they're armed with an email list of more than 10,000 names to keep their devoted audience updated as their new beginning takes shape.

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