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Porn of Plenty

Opening night at Theater LaB was packed. But what else would be expected when the show bears the rather provocative title Shopping and Fucking? What self-respecting, TV-watching, mall-browsing, movie-going inhabitant of the pop-culture-gone-ballistic 1990s wouldn't be a wee bit curious about a play with such a naughty little name? It would almost seem that when Mark Ravenhill sat down to scribble an appellation for his smart and rather smarmy script, he was thinking just like the capitalist characters who inhabit his play. A titillating name is bound to make for bigger box office numbers.

Thankfully, there's a whole lot more to this show than a clever title. Director Ed Muth and his small but formidable cast put together a haunting production of this difficult and disturbing play and created a night of theater as good as anything to come along in Houston this season.

On the surface, Shopping and Fucking spins its crimson neon lights over a sadly familiar landscape. Drugs, violence, familial alienation, pedophilia, lost hope, lost love and lots and lots of lonely, angry, sad sex drag these five characters through the entrails of London's underbelly.

The lights come up on a black and almost empty apartment. Occupants Lulu (Erin Kidwell) and Robbie (Dustin Ross) are two pathetic, lost twentysomethingers who negotiated their way into the bowels of London's underclass. They sit on the couch with Mark (Wayne Wilden) -- their roommate, mentor, substitute father and lover -- trying desperately to feed him. But Mark won't cooperate. Junkies, it seems, are bone thin for a reason. He vomits up (on stage) all their good intentions. Then, in an effort to get clean, Mark takes himself out of their lives and cave of an apartment. That leaves these infantile, almost-grownups to fend and scramble for themselves.

Days later, Robbie is busy getting fired from his glamorous job flipping burgers, and Lulu, who thinks of herself as a serious actress, is busy auditioning for a home-shopping network. She meets fancy-suit-wearing, middle-aged capitalist Brian (Daniel Treadway). He demands that she "act" for him when he discovers her aspirations for the stage. A consummate salesman who tells her that "civilization is money" and "money is civilization," Brian is a strutting rooster of a man with puffed-up hair and eyes that won't stop staring. He is also darkly unpredictable, weeping copious tears in sentimental revelry when he recalls scenes from The Lion King only to demand that Lulu bare her breasts seconds later. Desperate and starstruck, Lulu unhappily obliges, and she gets the job, which she discovers is nothing more than selling 30 hits of the drug ecstasy on the street.

While all this might sound incredibly predictable in this day of movies that would just as soon show masochistic sex as a horrific homicide, something strange and amazing emerges from the ordinary banality of thoughtless people misbehaving.

First, there are the rather extraordinary performances. Kidwell's Lulu is the consummate girl next door; only this girl is that scary little brown-haired mouse who grew up with a misshapen heart and no moral center. Lulu realizes that something's amiss when she finds herself shoplifting candy bars while a robber beats the cashier behind the counter. But she can't quite fit all the pieces together. She struggles over what she should have done, then goes ashen when she realizes that the store's video cameras might have caught her stealing.

Kidwell's sweet, round face and girlish pigtails belie a complicated performance rich with raw intelligence and a stunning ability to stay alive and utterly vital every moment. Lulu is resourceful if not kind. She is loving even if she doesn't quite get the concept of love. Kidwell is able to bring these disparate elements to the script as she creates one of the most fully realized female characters to occupy a stage in a long while.

Ross's Robbie, Lulu's gay roommate-boyfriend, is hateful and hilarious. When he retells the story of his attempt to sell drugs to Lulu's shopping network, he is weirdly charming. He's a noodle-headed numskull who inevitably breaks the cardinal rule of drug-dealing. He uses and then gets so high and giddy that he can't help but give away his product simply because it feels so good to give -- at least until he's beaten in the face when he runs out of free stuff.

But is feeling good while high a true state of being? This question is central to understanding Ravenhill's play, which challenges many of the assumptions and rules by which we live. Mark, the heroin addict, wonders if there "are there any [real] feelings left."

This oddball character, as played by the powerfully charismatic Wilden, bears all the psychological marks of an addict even though he's quit shooting up. After getting kicked out of rehab, Mark is reduced to articulating himself in the group therapy psycho-babble that he learned at the clinic. But Mark grows in intensity and eloquence as he spends time with Gary (Joshua Gray), a 14-year-old male prostitute. He doesn't want to love Gary, because of what he's heard in therapy -- that love and relationships can be as addictive and poisonous as drugs. Mark just wants a sexual "transaction."

Mark, however, doesn't know himself at all, though he's been a successful stockbroker as well as junkie. It takes Gary, a child who's been so badly damaged by his stepfather that he sees death as the ultimate expression of love, to teach Mark something about love and transaction, desire and need, which are all included in Ravenhill's concepts of love. "Society's given us no definition of love," says Ravenhill, so love must be defined by the individual. Who's to say that death and violence can't constitute a valid expression of love?

This bold and thought-provoking idea takes the script beyond the simple rehashing of all the icky behavior seen almost any afternoon on TV. Treadway's exquisitely ironic Brian, who's mad that Robbie "lost" the ecstasy when he was feeling so generous at the bar, brings this concept into sharp focus when he becomes much like an Old Testament god to the lost souls of this dark world. He scares Robbie and Lulu, implying that if they don't pay him for lost drugs, he will hurt them -- to death.

He sends Lulu and Robbie scrambling for the dough, creating a very funny sequence in which they discover their true calling as ultimate phone-sex operators. When they proudly pass the money to Brian, he becomes like Abraham and Isaac's unpredictable god on the mountaintop. He tells them to keep the money; he just wanted to see if they could get it.

It's a New Age lesson rich with the capitalist rhetoric everyone lives by on some level. We in the First World are stealing candy from those in the Third World as they are being beaten by a unjust system. And most of us stay only vaguely conscious of the viscousness inherent in a mercantile system that insists on profit at all costs. This play is political and emotional and asks us to examine and become more conscious of our position in the capitalist system. It's a worthy aspiration for any artistic endeavor, one carried out to its fullest with intelligent strength.

On the other end of the intellectual scale is Tony n' Tina's Wedding, an interactive script created by a group called Artificial Intelligence. This play/event has little in it to take home and mull over, but the experience is fun. In fact, it has inspired some folks to become Tony n' Tina groupies. Several audience members had seen the show more than once and were having a blast as they went through the motions, yet again, for this "wedding."

The play is nothing more than the ceremony and reception for Tony (Don Conte) and Tina (Kelly Cinnante), two tacky, third-generation Italians who behave like all the stereotypes suggest. The gum-smacking bridesmaids are dressed in flaming red taffeta complete with bows and flounce. On their fishnet-stockinged feet are velvet platform Kmart sandals. Swaggering their hips and wearing black tuxedos are the wild and crazy groomsmen.

Tony's father, Nunzio Senior (Tom Colavito), is a horrible stallion of a man who clearly needs gelding. He gets nastier and nastier the more he drinks. His bimbo girlfriend, Madeline (Carolyn Cox), wears a skirt too short to cover her middle-aged fanny and is happy to wiggle her tush for all the men in the crowd after she's tipsy. Add to the mix Tina's loud-mouthed, silly, sentimental mom, Josephina Vitale (Toni Perrotta), and her swishy brother, Joseph (Michael Armone), and it turns into an extended comic skit much like something on Saturday Night Live.

This skit invites the audience to participate. They can eat a pasta dinner, dance the Alley Cat and toast the bride and groom with the thimble of champagne that's passed out halfway through the event. The more reserved types can simply sit back and watch the bickering, weeping and sloppy kissing.

The actors are amusing and amazingly good sports about the whole thing and, for that matter, so was the audience. Some will find this sort of event too thin to hold up an entire evening, but on opening night, lots of folks were literally dancing in the aisles.

Shopping and Fucking runs through March 28 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, (713)868-7516. $20-$22.

Tony n' Tina's Wedding runs through February 14 at Garden in the Heights, 3927 Feagan, (713)629-3700. $49.50.


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