By Michael H. Margolin, EncoreMichigan.com
Mark Ravenhill, the author of “Shopping & F***ing” at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre, is one of the several playwrighting “stars” of Britain’s “in yer face” theater movement of the 1990s. Like the Angry Young Men playwrights of decades earlier, young English and Irish writers goad each other on to see how far can they move out from beneath the long shadow cast over British drama for the last 500 years by Shakespeare.
The well-designed program cover for the production issues this warning: “Contains nudity, violence, and adult situations.” For the record, there is simulated oral/anal sex, simulated anal penetration, one bare bottom, one (flaccid) penis and some three dozen or so uses of the f word and four or five of the c word. There are four men and one woman in the cast, and she is lucky to escape with no more than skimpy costumes.
Still, the play has been taken seriously and should be: It confronts two of our world’s greatest obsessions: buying and selling people (called reality television) and sexual intervention with pleasure derived from pain, rape, debasement, unresolved yearning and a fear of intimacy.
With these mighty themes, there is possibility of the erotic thrill of peeping at people in lust and dark, dark laughter at our own shameful feelings or memories reflected on the stage. Perhaps, even, revelation?
Director Joe Bailey, however, seems to have taken the actions of the plot at face value and directed the actors at hell bent for leather (no pun intended). This is a play that has to wash over an audience like a tide, engulf them, then ebb, returning again to flood the imagination, the senses, produce uncomfortable laughter.
Instead of peaks and valleys, tension and relaxation, Bailey goes for the maximum in volume and physicality so there is not enough time to smell the fear, feel the pain. In all fairness, he is working on the Ringwald stage with its ungainly playing area and the stage light that shines in your eyes if you sit stage right. (Otherwise, Joe Plambeck’s lighting design did a lot with the few technical resources available.)
In cramped spaces a small gesture works better than a big one, and Bailey is also working with actors whose “English” accents are not top notch (with one exception). Having them shout does more harm to the drama than heighten it and doesn’t allow the subtler points to be made.
Mikey Brown’s sound design is a plus; the “Jaws”-like theme between scenes conveys the menace in the play. Brown, who plays the part of Brian, an intimidating presence who might have stepped out of a Pinter play, also nails the accent fairly well – well enough to bring Michael Caine or Bob Hoskins to mind.
The plot – really a series of scenes held together by the themes of filthy lucre and the transaction of sex between men without love – does not add up to much: Mark, a recovering, gay addict, wants to avoid intimacy, confusing it with dependency on people instead of drugs; Gary, a young male rent boy wants anal sex with pain, having been violently initiated by his stepfather; Robbie loves Mark, but is rejected; and the one woman, Lulu, seems to just serve the men warmed frozen dinners or perform raucous phone sex. (The characters are named for the members of a Manchester boy band, Take That, and the singer, Lulu, who collaborated with them.)
At the end, Brian tells us the moral: “What,” his father asked him, “are the first three words in the bible?” The correct answer is “Get the money” before you give anything, a mantra of the prostitute-driven commodity world we live in.
The cast was effective, particularly in moments when they pitched their voices at a normal level and read the meaning in the lines. Mark was played by Matthew Turner Shelton, Robbie by Robbie Dwight. As Gary the young hustler, Bailey Boudreau displayed a quirky , affecting charm. As Lulu, Zee Bricker was directed to be coy or shrewish and mostly at the top of her lungs – though she looked the part to a “t.”
This is one of the more interesting plays on the boards this season, and perhaps the show will calm down as it runs; if not, you can always see one of the works of an American “in yer face” dramatist, Tracy Letts, who wrote the play and the screenplay for the vicious, funny and, at times, unbearable, “Killer Joe” now playing at the Birmingham 8 (and for which The Ringwald received a handful of Wilde Awards nominations in 2009).
For tickets and showtimes, go to www.encoremichigan.com.
Michael H. Margolin reviews local theater productions for www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.