Like many contemporary plays, British dramatist Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike begins with a situation and a not very promising one at that. The just-pregnant schoolteacher Becky (Elissa Stebbins) has made plans to buy a used bike. In a truly odd marital spat, Becky's husband, John (Nick Medina), who is going off to Amsterdam for an anti-aging conference, would prefer that his wife take up a different sport. He thinks yoga is the proper exercise for the newly-pregnant. And if she gets a bike, he would like for her to buy one from a shop of his choosing, and not from a man whose wife is out of town while he’s out of town.
The couple's conversation is awkward and has vaguely sexual overtones without actually being sexual. John has unusual concerns about used bikes. “You don’t know where it’s been," he says, "Who’s been on it.” Becky responds that the wife of the man selling the bike has, and what would it matter anyway? John counters with a haughty, “So he says.” And we, along with Becky, are taken aback. In what world would a man, or anyone, do something to a bike that would make it unfit to ride? Is this a new kind of terrorism of the bourgeois class?
It all feels sketchy and on the level of a one-joke Saturday Night Live skit. When the plumbing in the couple's fixer-upper house groans emphatically, repeatedly -- and with one of the worst off stage sound effects I’ve ever heard -- John insists that he doesn’t want Becky to think he’s ignoring the pipes. Then she pops out of the bathroom in a new, silky nightie and he predictably shows little interest. We knew that was going to happen: sexually clueless husbands have been a theater staple since the Romans, and it has the desired -- or one might say, undesired -- effect of sleazy, unarticulated porn.
Nina Ball’s set doesn’t seem to help the situation, with its slap-dash quality reminiscent of mid-70’s soap operas that's provisional and overly concerned with realistic effects. Yes, there’s running water in the kitchen faucet, but functionality isn’t an aesthetic achievement. Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting seems off, too, as if the designer couldn’t settle on a consistent thought or mood. And the acting is unsure, along with the British accents. You think this can’t last, that the show will fall to pieces, and yet somehow Shotgun Players' production triumphs under Patrick Dooley's sly direction.
That's because both the production and play are relentless. Skinner keeps pushing forwards with a lovely core message -- live for your desires -- and Shotgun's team embraces that ideal right through their mistakes. Here, every vice becomes a virtue, a minor miracle that shouldn't happen. Like her callow heroine, the dramatist doesn’t seem to care how we get there, only that we do. In both art and life, that kind of reckless commitment is thrilling.
For Becky, that means sex, either with her husband or any man who might show up -- including the recently widowed plumber, Mike (David Sinaiko), who’s come to fix her pipes. Yes: who’s come to fix her pipes. Skinner can really lay it on thick. And the one joke of the play -- that everything begins, ends, and begins with sex -- starts to expand in strange and subtle ways.
Becky’s scenes with John’s slightly older, chummy friend Jenny (in an unbalanced, ridiculous, game, and eventually winning performance by El Bey) are especially startling. Saddled with two kids and an absent, distant husband, Jenny plays the voice of reason, the consoling matron of experience to Becky’s unfocused and wild naïf.
But in Skinner’s world, experience has nothing on desire. Desire confounds and obliterates without even trying. Jenny visits Becky right after she’s had sex with Mike. Becky’s in pain; she might have had a miscarriage. Oblivious to basic standards of decorum, Becky fingers herself to check for blood in front of Jenny and Mike. Yet, despite all that, it is Jenny who ends up scared and abashed, running away and blathering that she must be “stupid.”
Becky is an overwhelming force, a strange mélange of listlessness and Neitzschean will to power. She disrupts everyone, even the amoral, sadistic Oliver (Kevin Clarke), who sells her his wife’s bike and then gives her so much more than a good, fast ride. The beauty of Skinner’s vision is that Becky can’t help it: by giving into whom and what she is, she grinds everyone around her to dust. Oliver, who knows his way around vile behavior, is honestly terrified by her feelings.
Shotgun’s cast takes the same tact. The actors abandon themselves to pure feeling, no matter how ugly. After the first hour, I gave into their crazy energy, and by the second, they had me floating alongside Skinner’s wild rhythms and U-turns. If you have to choose between acting that's technically perfect and acting that makes you pay attention, well, I know my choice.
As Becky, Stebbins is masterful at playing the moment. The actress seems to have no idea where she’s going, as if she forgot the ending of the play. Watch her at the end of her scenes. She looks disoriented, as if someone just punched her hard in the face. You feel not only that the play matters to this talented actress, but also that it’s changing her as she performs it. Though the same could be said of the whole cast, especially Clarke, Sinaiko, and Medina. All of them seem off at times, and yet they make this confounding and stunning play sing.
Of course, the overall effect has a lot to do with Skinner’s writing, which is shifty and alive. It follows the brutal logic of sexual desire in an obvious way, and yet is completely surprising. So what’s the point of all of this? I’m happy to report that I don’t believe Skinner has one or even tries. She just lets everything be, and that’s a proper gift.
Shotgun Players' The Village Bike runs through Sunday, Jul. 3 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information please go to www.shotgunplayers.org