Monday, June 6, 2016

"The Village Bike"


The Village Bike
Penelope Skinner

Eliss Stebbins as Becky & Nick Medina as John
When one spouse makes amorous moves in bed for some late-night hanky-panky and the other spouse responds to each approach, “Not tonight ... I’ve got an early start... I’ve got to make lasagna tomorrow... It’s a bit hot ... It’s the weather,” a natural inclination would be to assume the former is the horny husband and the latter, the tired, not-interested wife.  But this opening scene is only the tip of the iceberg for a series of sex-role reversals pregnant Becky and hubby John are about to display.  He is the one reading baby books, going gaga over a new crib mobile, and scouring the neighborhood for friends’ baby things to borrow.  All the while, she is the one parading about day and night in a suggestive nightgown; turning on to porn while he sleeps; and making eyes and come-ons to the plumber.  The world of male/female assumptions and stereotypes still stubbornly and generally held in our post-women’s-liberated world are given a good shake-up in Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike.  Shotgun Players presents a well acted, funny, and often sexually raw production that titillates, teases, and sometimes even shocks our senses.  That is, until the end; but more about that, later.

Recently pregnant Becky, now on summer holiday from teaching, has yet to show much change in her still-slim, petite body.  What she is showing is a drive and desire to free herself from her husband’s over-protective hovering to monitor every morsel she eats and drop she drinks and his constant focus on the upcoming baby rather than on her.  Becky wants a bike to ride the countryside around the English village they recently moved to (and fantasizes riding downhill with no hands on the handlebar).  She wants her husband John to respond to her feeling his crotch or licking his neck and not roll over with the pillow over his head.  And she is increasingly willing to do whatever it takes, with whomever it takes, to relieve the gnawing, sexual desires inside her and to re-enact scenes she in now addicted to watching from her husband’s stashed collection of porn (classics like “Get Me Wet, Mr. Plumber”).

Elissa Stebbins breaks wide open many societal boundaries of what a pregnant woman ‘should’ be in her gutsy, lusty, and often funny portrayal of Becky.  When a widowed plumber named Mike (David Sinaiko) actually arrives to attend to her “sweaty pipes” (initially, just those of the house), she happens to greet him in a short, silky robe that keeps slipping off her shoulder to reveal a protruding breast peeking from her nightie.  The two do a kind of mating dance with not-too-subtle hints from either of what is really the desired outcome of his visit; but it is all just a rehearsal for later action by the teasing, not-quite-ready-to-pounce Becky.  

Elissa Stebbins as Becky & Kevin Clarke as Oliver
The real play for fun comes when local actor Oliver shows up in costume (tight pants, knee boots, and a flair of overt sexiness) to deliver the bike she is buying from him.  Sparks begin to fly, and a flame is kindled that will take these two on a month-long fling (while his wife is away) where those porn scenes will come to full life, with new ones created along the way.  Daring desire is written all over Kevin Clarke’s steady stare of seduction from eyes that scream for a hot affair.  He pushes the initially timid Becky without forcing and later becomes the starring partner of her fulfilled fantasies with full gusto and grit. 

When with Oliver, Ms. Stebbins uses every ounce of her being to express on the outside the fantasies and desires that have been building up on her inside.  When not with him, she is bored but polite when an overly exuberant neighbor, Jenny, comes with arm-loads of baby things and wanting to talk about nothing but how wonderful Becky’s husband, John, is.  Jenny is an out-of-work PhD in theoretical astrophysics who cannot find an au pair, has a husband who roams the world doing good and is never home, and two obnoxious (or at least very normal) young boys driving her nuts.  Bel El is delightful as the properly English, overly expressive, intensely lonely Jenny who has trouble keeping her own adoring eyes and hands off clueless John and who so wants uninterested Becky as her new, best friend.

Nick Medina as John
And then there is the cuckolded, saintly John himself.  Nick Medina is just too good to believe as the husband who rushes to meet his wife’s every desire – except her sexual ones, that is.  He is the one who really wishes the baby were inside of him so that he can insure its safety and well being (not trusting his wife on her bike or her penchant for vodka).  Mr. Medina’s John is on the surface both ideal and idealistic (while also ignoring of the many signs around him of his wife’s shenanigans); but under that sweet smile and domestic nature, there is something hidden and disturbing.  We begin to understand that there is a controlling nature about this goody-two-shoes that is a bit creepy.  Just mention shopping at Tesco or bringing home a plastic bag and see how this earth-and-wife-protecting John reacts.

Nina Ball once again has created an excellent set with lots of details, nooks, and crannies to allow a small English cottage and other required scenes to come to full life.  Hanna Birch Carl excels in the sound department as loud interruptions of pounding pipes remind us that something is sorely amiss and about to explode in this little cottage (not to mention a roaring windstorm that is so real in sound to almost shake us in our seats).  Valera Coble’s costumes and Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting are spot-on in highlighting shifts and changes in mood and events of the story.

For the first ninety per cent of Penelope Skinner’s script and Patrick Dooley’s direction, we as audience are jolted with sexy fun and frolic to question our own limiting assumptions about sex roles and mores that may be more defining of our attitudes and judgments than we might want to admit.  For example, what, if anything, does make us uncomfortable when it comes to women, especially mothers-to-be, liking pornography or making advances behind their trusting husband’s back?  What should be the response to “I’m done with sex” from one’s spouse?  How core is a vibrant sex life for us; and what judgments do we make about the drives, desires, and demands of others, including our own spouses? 

But then this play takes a curious, frankly disappointing turn at the end for some unknown, unexplained reason in script or direction.  The playwright falls back in line with just the sex roles we came in expecting to see in ways that I find flabbergasting and exasperating.  Suddenly, it is if the actors were handed scripts to a different play and asked to insert them into this one.  The ending could have gone in so many other directions, it seems to me; but where it does go is a bit unsatisfying and bewildering.

That said, the first two-plus hours of The Village Bike are fun, thought-provoking, and well-worth a trip to see this second production of the twenty-fifth season of Shotgun Players and its cast in full-year repertory.  And perhaps to others, the ending will make much more sense.

Rating: 4 E

The Village Bike continues through June 26, 2016 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han

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