Shocking 'Shopping and Fucking'

Monkey Wrench Collective production leaves you feeling . . . something. And that's a good thing

Mark Ravenhill wrote Shopping and Fucking in 1996. It took five years for an Orange County theater company to mount the English playwright’s astonishingly violent and sexually fueled play, but when the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. did so in 2001, it still seemed fresh and compelling. Few writers had ever taken such an uncompromisingly bleak look at the connection between capitalism’s built-in hunger for creature comforts and basic human compulsion and obsession.

Nine years later, on the occasion of its second Orange County production (courtesy of the Monkey Wrench Collective), Shopping and Fucking seems downright prescient.

No, not because everyone is as grimly fucked-up as the drug addicts, prostitutes, social misfits and sadistic agents of commerce in the play; but rather because the economic reality of the Great Recession uncomfortably underscores the play’s deep disconnect between the so-called virtues of unchecked capitalism and the increasingly futile attempts by so many to survive its death rattle.

Make no mistake: Though Shopping and Fucking gets a great deal of notoriety from its unceasing parade of horrifyingly violent and hardcore sexual scenes, it’s a play about money—how people who crave it will do just about anything to get it and what the reckless pursuit of it does to their souls.

Ravenhill peppers his gruesome, albeit very funny at times, play with everything from allusions to The Lion King to armchair theories of codependency. But commerce drives nearly every exchange—peddling Ecstasy tabs, resorting to phone sex to deal with debt, paying for sex in order to keep it a transaction rather than an emotional connection.

Set in London’s economically depressed and drug-saturated East End, Shopping and Fucking isn’t as concerned with plot as it is with character. And while each is terribly flawed, the characters are compelling. There’s Mark (a high-strung and emotionally broken Keith Bennett), a junkie recently released from rehab who is terrified of repeating the same patterns of emotional dependence that he thinks fuel his drug abuse; his friend Lulu (an enthusiastically desperate Terri Mowrey), a pill-pushing shoplifter; her flat mate Robbie (a brooding, terribly insecure Alexander Price), who has too many problems to enumerate in a single sentence; Gary (a heartbreakingly confused Peter Hagen), a teenage prostitute who has fled from his sexually abusive stepfather; and Brian (a sterling Brian Jennings), the play’s father figure, who is most financially secure and the most sadistically manipulative character.

The plot operates on two wobbly tracks. There’s Mark’s futile attempt to replace emotional dependency with sexual commerce in the person of Gary, who is just looking for someone to take care of him. And there’s Lulu and Robbie’s fruitless attempt to recoup the loss of 300 Ecstasy tabs given to them to sell by Brian. The strands unite when Mark takes Gary to meet his friends, culminating in one of the most disturbing climaxes you’re going to see on any stage, anywhere.

And disturbing is as apropos a word to describe Shopping and Fucking as any. But while the most obvious disturbances stem from scenes involving vicious ass-rapings and a film of a young man being chain-sawed in a blood-filled bathtub, the material is equally disturbing when looked at in the context of Ravenhill’s worldview: People and the thing most people enjoy as much as anything, sex, are commodities whose value sharply diminishes the further down the economic scale they slide. And when those people no longer possess any value, they are prone to some rather outrageous forms of acting out.

Helmed by Weekly arts contributor Dave Barton (who also directed the 2001 Rude Guerrilla production), Monkey Wrench’s staging doesn’t shy away from Ravenhill’s uncompromisingly savage tone. There is no attempt to soften the violence or hardcore sexuality, and there is a good reason why eight people walked out of the show during its first two weekends: Most people have real problems with watching private perversions and gruesome fantasies unleashed anywhere other than on their computer monitors or in their own imaginations.

But by no means does that suggest Shopping and Fucking is exploitative, socially irredeemable or concerned with shocking just to shock. Ravenhill merely followed—and continues to do so—a long line of writers who embrace the most dispossessed and marginalized elements of society in order to draw a connection between the hypocrisy and moral vacuousness of more acceptable elements. He’s cut from the same cloth as writers such as the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet and William Burroughs.

And just like experiencing those writers’ worlds, you might find it difficult to like Shopping and Fucking. But it’s doubtful you’ll walk away not thinking about what you just witnessed. Maybe those thoughts will lead you to question capitalism further. Perhaps they’ll help you to define your standards of what is offensive. Or maybe you’ll just want to jack off. Whatever. But there’s no denying Shopping and Fucking will leave some kind of impression—and it most definitely will not look like indifference.

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