We generally like our infidelities, our substance abuse and our empty lives—in the theater, at any rate—cloaked behind a veneer of witty conversation and classy surroundings. It's racy when adultery is committed with the flair and panache of Noel Coward's charming alcoholics. It's downright mesmerizing when the bickering broken souls speak as well as Edward Albee's.
But a man giving another man a rim job onstage and stopping only because he gets blood on his face—well, that's a long way from theatrical status quo. As are knives up the rectum, snuff films and graphic depictions of smoking heroin. But they go a long way toward explaining the peculiarly subversive stance of Mark Ravenhill's play Shopping and Fucking, receiving its Orange County premiere courtesy of the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company.
Rarely does a play come along that confirms every fear and loathing that the morally indignant routinely level at popular culture; even rarer is a play that is able to deal in such vulgar, shocking material and yet possess a mind and poignancy all its own.
And while this is by no means a great play—the constant Disney allusions are pedestrian and redundant, and the plot seems blearily cobbled together over more than a few pints—there are several great scenes and several great moments. All of it is sustained by a production that delivers an unblinking portrait of a sick, grimy world while simultaneously making us feel deeply for its emotionally ravaged characters.
The play revolves around three foundering Londoners involved in a twisted triangle. There's the oldest of the three, Mark (Jay Michael Fraley), a junkie bisexual who desperately wants to kick his dependency on chemicals and people. There's his boyfriend, Robbie (Eric Eisenbrey), a young punk. There's Robbie's girlfriend, Lulu (Lorianne Hill), an actress who is—relatively speaking—the most normal of the bunch. In an effort to kick, Mark splits the tangled nest only to wind up with someone equally screwed up: Gary (Nicholas Downs), a teenage prostitute living above an arcade after running away from his sodomizing stepfather.
Meanwhile, Robbie and Lulu, bereft of Mark's "mature" guidance, have to find jobs. They get caught up in an Ecstacy ring led by Brian (Robert M. Tully), a simmering psychopath who is nonetheless driven to tears by Disney's The Lion King. The parallel plots intersect in the play's gruesome and compelling climax, which contains the most hair-raising and shockingly explicit dialogue and actions I've ever seen onstage.
Director Dave Barton pulls no punches in his production; in fact, without having read the script, I'm still willing to guess he added a few right hooks. He's graced with a cast that is absolutely fearless when it comes to the script's demands, which include everything from baring breasts and genitals to reciting Shakespeare during phone sex. Fraley and Hill deliver particularly strong performances, with Tully's psychotic Brian scoring big in his more intense moments. Downs' and Eisenbrey's characters seem a bit unsolidified, but they're wholly effective when it counts most.
But what does it all mean? Well, it's designed to be offensive. And I don't mean offensive in the sense of vulgar or obscene—although there's plenty onstage that could easily qualify. It's offensive in terms of a football team's offense—attacking and aggressive.
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There's a real sense of anger and frustration in this play. These characters represent the dispossessed, those condemned to drift in the margins of a society that venerates wealth and image above all else. If you don't have the clothes or the cash, you're not really worth much of anything. It's a lack of self-worth that manifests itself in the desperate way these characters clutch at money and emotional contact.
And that's what gives Ravenhill's play its sharpest edge. It's not the sodomy. It's not the snuff films. It's the rather angry critique of a consumer society in which image is everything. He tips his hand during a monologue in which a character says that stories used to be grand and big but the world got tired or senile and now there are no more big stories. That's a staple of postmodern theory: the age of sweeping narratives is over. No more march toward socialism. No more historical evolution toward human enlightenment. All we have now is a morally relativistic world populated by billions and billions of little stories, all jockeying for space, all clamoring for attention. And it's only natural that those without the means (re: the money or position) to get their stories told will continue to feel alienated and worthless.
This is a story about people who rarely get their story told—at least not in the theater. They have the same needs and desires of those higher up the food chain but not the means to satisfy them. So they're trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of degradation and frustration. In essence, then, this is a play that, like so many others, holds a mirror up to society. Except this mirror doesn't belong in the well-manicured hand of a well-dressed woman in a well-appointed drawing room. It's a filthy mirror with traces of cocaine residue, grubby fingerprints and dried blood smudged into it—the kind of ragged, jagged surface that can easily double as a most effective weapon.
Shopping and Fucking by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through March 11. $12-$15.