The most shocking play I saw as a critic? There are several on the list. The shock wasn’t always for the same reason. Some times it was occasioned by violent behavior, other times by disturbing emotional situations.
Sometimes, it was just sex.
Mark Ravenhill’s “Shopping and Fucking” fell into that category. It was perhaps the most explicit play I encountered in my years observing Phoenix theater. At least, it had some of the most explicit scenes. OK, it had one scene. I can still remember every detail. I wish I couldn’t.
The venue was Planet Earth. For those lately come to the Valley, there is little I can say that will give an indication of the depths that were explored in the productions there. It was the most challenging theater in town, the most creative and the one most likely to send you out of the theater wanting to take a hot shower with plenty of soap.
This was one of the first plays to bring director/actor Ron May to the attention of theatergoers. As artistic director of Stray Cat Theatre, he is known for walking on the edge. All I can say is, he started young.
It is also one of the few plays to bring me into conflict with my bosses at the Republic. There was simply no way they were going to allow “Shopping and Fucking” in print. Some editors wanted me to ignore the play; neither preview it or review it. My hackles were at their highest. We compromised on “Shopping and (Expletive).” Based on the speculation that ensued, the public had a far more vivid imagination than the playwright. Some of the “fill-ins” suggested by readers left me wondering if the apocalypse were just down the block.
In any case, here is my review of the play. In spite of being shocked, I found merit in its exploration of the lives of young people trapped in a hopeless roundelay of drugs, sex and potential death. It put a boil on stage and lanced it. The pus that poured over the footlights was appalling but there was some relief in watching the playwright wield his scalpel.
By Kyle Lawson, Arizona Republic, Dec. 9, 1999
Lights pulsate. The music throbs, painfully loud. On the club dance floor, two men and a woman gyrate with a carnal intensity that causes some watchers to squirm uncomfortably in response.
Making its Arizona debut at Planet Earth Theatre, Mark Ravenhill’s drama, Shopping and (Expletive), plunges audiences into the drug-induced fantasy world of its young characters without preparation and just as quickly gut-punches them with reality.
One of the men collapses, vomiting blood. His mates rush to his side. They’ve seen it before, but they’re no less panicked. The chemicals they ingest like candy are rough hands that caress, then squeeze. Some day, they know the hands will squeeze too hard.
All these kids want is a little happiness. It’s a commodity in short supply in the world they’ve inherited. The clubs, the music, the high that comes from Ecstasy, the escape valve of the moment, gives them the illusion they’re on top of things. But the drugs wear off, the clubs close and they’re left with each other.
All too quickly, they learn that friendship, sexual dependency and even what passes for love among them is not enough to save them. Only they can do that, but no one has prepared them to stand on their own.
Ravenhill has written an odd morality fable, one that paints its characters in bleak hues yet courts sympathy for these surprisingly likable people who are in their late teens or early 20s but barely more than children in emotional terms.
Lulu (Julie Devante), a not-so-closeted voyeur of other people’s pain and sexual passion, is pragmatic, willing to do what ever is necessary to survive. Robbie (Jason Deppen) just wants to be happy and to make those around him happy. Mark (Benjamin Monrad) is an addictive personality who is hopelessly enslaved to the drugs and sex that define his life.
When Mark, who has been the trio’s sole support, leaves to seek professional help, Lulu and Robbie land in the clutches of Brian (Greg London), a sinister adult who is obsessed with money. Brian puts them on the street to deal drugs, but Robbie, a bit dense, messes it up and the pair find themselves in a dangerous situation.
No less dangerous than that of Mark, who, instead of finding help, is ensnared by Gary (Jason J. Grunner), an abused child looking for someone to provide him with the ultimate sex act, one that will release him from the hellishness of his existence.
As it turns out, Gary also has a lot of money. When Mark introduces the boy to Robbie and Lulu, the stage is set for tragedy.
The ending may be predictable, but, in getting there, Ravenhill provides a chilling look into the lives of disaffected youth. These people are desperate for some authority figure to tell them how to clean up the mess they’ve made, but they angrily reject any attempt to tell them what to do. They are innocents, but without any moral standards to guide them. Like the adults they know, their lives center on the elements of the play’s title, the spending of money and the pursuit of physical gratification.
That title is gratuitous. Ravenhill knew it would shock. Just the way he knew it would shock when Lulu bares her breasts to Brian or when Mark and Gary engage in explicit sex. Those moments, and the brutal nature of much of the dialogue, will appall and repulse all but the most open-minded audiences. Yet, this is the way it is for a segment of American and English society. There was the frisson of recognition from the mostly young, sold-out Planet Earth audience.
The cast is made up of Arizona State University students and is indicative of the renaissance that has taken place in the theater program there. The young actors stumble now and then in bringing Ravenhill’s unhappy characters to life, but they exhibit immense potential. So does director Ron May, a recent university graduate, who takes an unflinching approach to Ravenhill’s ugly tale.
Unless you can take the same approach, don’t see this play.