Becky’s got a problem. So does John, her husband.
Actually, Becky and John have lots of problems, especially with each other, and especially when it comes to sex, which is what drives Penelope Skinner’s sardonic and savagely honest play, The Village Bike, currently making its local debut in a not-to-be-missed production by Shotgun Players.
The play’s title refers to British slang for a promiscuous woman (everyone gets a ride), and Skinner apparently hasn’t met a euphemism she doesn’t like, even the most belabored ones lifted straight from cheap porn films. On the more clever side, note the names Becky and John are also slang terms with sexual connotations, and Skinner has a knack for making comedy out of sad reality. Understandably director Patrick Dooley sometimes seems hesitant to go all in on Skinner’s grim, caustic take on love and marriage, but when forced to make a choice the company plays for high stakes and generally wins – this is a play that will make audiences squirm uncomfortably one minute and laugh knowingly the next.
On the surface Becky’s problem is John’s complete sexual disinterest since she’s become pregnant. More precisely, her problem is his disinterest in her, since she knows he’s still avidly watching porn on the sly and probably shagging hookers on his business trips to Amsterdam. Becky tries numerous things to stir some passion between them – she suggests they watch porn together (like they used to), buys a new negligee, teases, offers to take care of the housework, and finally humiliates herself by pleading for some sexual attention.
Nothing she tries gets a rise out him. He doesn’t want to hurt the baby. Frustrated, she decides to take up bicycle riding as a means of exercise, an opportunity to get out of the house, and hopefully feel like something other than an incubator for John's baby.
John’s problem is more obfuscated, and the audience is left to parse out exactly what's going on with him. Were it not for his penchant for straight porn and the telltale ways he responds to Becky's accusations regarding what he's really been doing in Amsterdam, it would be easy to assume Becky is his beard, and Nick Medina's emasculated performance clouds the characterization more than it should. Skinner's script leaves whatever caused him to become terrified of Becky's sexuality a mystery to the audience, and it may be to him as well, but Dooley and Medina don't take any stabs at filling in the reason, leaving us to assume he's just another typical clueless male who doesn't know how to navigate the impending change in their relationship, and rather than try to figure out how his wife's sexuality (and body) can co-exist with motherhood, he opts for the passive-agressive response of being a caring husband and father-to-be rather than face the new terrors of Becky's vagina. Remember that line of Robert DeNiro's in Analyze This when Billy Crystal asks him why he can't do things with his wife that he does with his girlfriend? Hey, that's the mouth she kisses my kids goodnight with! What are you, crazy? It's all true, folks.
On the other hand Elissa Stebbins' portrayal of Becky conveys a full understanding of what's taking place in this marriage and resulting state of desperation. Most people in the audience who've lived a little bit surely know women who've become trapped in sexless marriages through no fault of their own, whether it began with a pregnancy, the arrival of children, or some other reason. What makes The Village Bike worth seeing is how fearlessly Skinner pulls back the covers on a common situation that's rarely discussed between more than two people at a time, and why those conversations often end up taking place between the neglected woman and a man she's found to give her what she's not getting at home.
In Becky's case that's the disreputable Oliver, who a) happens to have a bike for sale and b) is game for anything and likes to play hard and on the edge when his own wife is away. Skinner doesn't shy away from giving the audience the sometimes ugly but quite believable thrills of their pairing, including Becky's increasingly risky behavior to keep it going. As Oliver, Kevin Clark is a charming, frightening, and masterful compartmentalizer. In a role that would feel too small if she hadn't nailed its brevity for all it's worth, Megan Trout is like a razor blade in an ice cream cone as Oliver's wife Alice.
Dropping in from time to time are Jenny (El Beh, once again an effective chameleon here) to offer Becky an idea of what her own miserable future might look like if she accepts what's happening between her and John, and Mike the plumber (David Sinaiko), a lonely widower who's come to fix her groaning pipes and gets pulled into the vortex of Becky's desires, and who in the play's final scene, which almost feels like a toss-off, drives home Skinner's dagger of despair.
The Village Bike isn't Shotgun's only risky success at the moment. As part of a repertory schedule of five plays through the rest of 2016 with a schedule that feels like a high-wire act, the company is also staging a remarkably effective Russian roulette-style production of Hamlet. In a conceit I initially viewed with suspicion and no small amount of skepticism, each member of the cast gathers onstage at the beginning of each performance and plucks their role for that night from poor Yorick's skull. The Village Bike's Trout, Medina, Beh, Clarke, and Sinaiko are joined by Beth Wilmurt and Cathleen Riddley, with thoughtful direction by Mark Jackson, in a production that manages to be illuminating (Megan Trout is one terrific Hamlet) while having a watch-them-flying-by-the-seat-their-pants excitement.
The players have memorized the lines for every role, and while someone inevitably goes up on one or two during every performance, the seamlessness with which it's handled makes it almost unnoticeable. Since who plays what role is literally the luck of the draw, what might initially seem like comedic opportunities in Jackson's production serve to validate the idea that Shakespeare's characters have a depth and universality transcending gender and typecasting.
On paper it shouldn't work, but from a seat in the audience, one couldn't ask for more, especially knowing that by doing both plays at the same time (with three more to come), this cast is taking on something that sounds almost impossible, and they're succeeding every night. Nina Ball's impressive set design uses the same foundation for both plays.
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