Red light special

The Seattle premiere of Mark Ravenhill's controversial play.

One of the friends who accompanied me to the premiere of Hyperion Theater's Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill summed it up nicely: "The British sure seem to have a corner on bile, don't they?" Perhaps it's the weather, the loss of Empire, or the legacy of Thatcher, but if you want a good rant, spend some time in England. Or, if you want your bile conveniently distilled, check out this play.

Shopping and Fucking

Hyperion Theater

ends August 29

The story centers on a trio living the low life in present-day London—Robbie (Josh Sebers), Mark (Phillip Endicott), and Lulu (Mollia Jensen)—whose cozy little m鮡ge ࠴rois has sadly turned sour, thanks to Mark's descent into drug abuse. When he checks himself in for treatment, his friends head off in search of employment, with Robbie donning a McDonald's uniform and Lulu auditioning for a TV commercial directed by the mysterious Brian (Joseph DeLorenzo), who's some sort of ungodly combination of TV producer, drug dealer, and free-market guru.

No sooner have Robbie and Lulu agreed to deal a large stash of Ecstasy for Brian then Mark returns, clean but filled with the sort of "therapy speak" that shows he's been involved in a lot of 12-step meetings. This has led him to the eccentric conclusion that it's better for him to pay for sex than be in a relationship, because his "addiction" to people is the root of his problems. But once a fool for love, always a fool for love, as he finds when he tries to buy sex from Gary (Dave Dumrese), a down-on-his-luck male prostitute who's the victim of repeated sexual molestation from his stepfather. Soon all of the characters are involved in a serious downward spiral—and considering that they start in the gutter, it's not an especially enriching journey.

As you can guess from the title, one of the dearest wishes of the (then) 25-year-old playwright is to shock us, to demonstrate his thesis that in a world where money is god and all interactions are transactions, love and compassion have no place. But despite the graphic nature of the sex and violence on display (lots of onstage nudity, simulated sex, and occasional random violence), there's something a little formal about the depravity. What we have here is a Jacobean comedy of manners. When anything is possible and morality is beside the point, the most inhuman acts become issues of decorum; is it really done, after all, to bugger someone with a steak knife, even if it's their fondest desire?

When you consider the number of plays out there without a single good idea to their name, you can see why Ravenhill is so overjoyed to have hold of one. The trouble is that in his youthful enthusiasm he allows the subtext—all those lovely hidden messages that we should be picking up between the lines—to perform a jujitsu move on the text and entirely flip it over. He delivers his message not in a soup篮 but with a shovel. He also leaves vast gaping holes in his fast-moving plot and papers them over with passion and greed. Whenever he needs someone to do something outrageous, they either get horny or desperately need cash. These are a pair of handy and always-available carrots to dangle in front of the characters, but you soon realize (even if the characters don't) that they're patently artificial.

But hey, the indulgences of youth in, say, pop music are routinely overlooked. No one would argue that subtlety is a young man's game, and Ravenhill certainly manages to take a rowdy ride on his chosen themes. It helps that the company is entirely willing to go just as far as the script demands, and, with the exception of DeLorenzo (who's unable to find anything like a reality in the enigma of the monstrous Brian), they deliver smart, funny, and entirely impassioned performances. Endicott's sincere but entirely confused attempts at morality are heartbreakingly funny, and Sebers as the instinctive Robbie has one of the few entirely successful speeches in the play, in which he describes a drug-induced world vision. As with their earlier productions, Hyperion and director Joe Seabeck have shown that they're a company to watch, combining physical exuberance with a mature insight and professionalism.

 
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