I’m taking the blog out of hibernation to discuss the play currently running at Shotgun Players, “The Village Bike.” (Warning: spoilers ahead.) It has been the subject of tremendous controversy and a lot of discussion in the local theater community, because the brand-new, young critic at the San Francisco Chronicle gave it the dreaded “empty chair” (i.e. “worthless”) rating, stating that she found it to be “sexist” and “retrograde.” The British playwright, Penelope Skinner, self-identifies as a feminist, making it unlikely that her intention with “The Village Bike” was simply to reinforce gender stereotypes.
Unlike a lot of contemporary plays, “The Village Bike” is not a 90-minute one-act; it’s about two and a half hours long, including intermission. Sometimes I prefer intermission-less plays, but in this case, I feel the break serves an important purpose. The first half of “Bike” sets the viewer up for a fairly straight-up sex comedy; the second half takes a much darker turn.
Becky, a newly-pregnant schoolteacher on summer holiday during a fierce heat wave, finds that her hormones are running amok, causing her to feel incredibly horny. Unfortunately, her devoted husband John is in no mood to satisfy his wife’s desires; it’s implied that they had a healthy sex life in the past, but now that she’s carrying his child, he seems to see her in a different light, and rejects her advances. Becky stumbles across John’s porn stash and begins watching his old DVDs, including one featuring an eighteenth-century highwayman who “kidnaps and ravishes” the virginal heroine.
Becky and John have just moved from the city to a village (“somewhere in middle England,” according to the play), and the pipes in their new home are creaking and banging. Their next-door neighbor, a mum of two named Jenny, recommends a plumber: Mike, a 60-something widower. When he shows up, his exchange with Becky seems, in light of what we know about her sex drive, a little uncomfortably heavy on double entendres: “You got sweaty pipes,” “it’s nice and tight for now,” that sort of thing. Just when you wonder what might happen between Becky and the gray-haired plumber, in struts Oliver, a powerfully handsome alpha-male type—dressed as an eighteenth-century highwayman.
Oliver is in costume for a community-theater rehearsal; he’s stopped by Becky’s house because she’s interested in purchasing a bicycle, and he’s selling his wife’s old bike. The two-wheeler is in need of some repairs, so Oliver tells her he’ll come back later, once he’s more appropriately attired. Both Becky’s husband John and Oliver’s wife Alice are conveniently out of town. They flirt; Becky hesitates; Oliver tells her to call him if she changes her mind. Right before intermission, she rings him up.
Act Two finds Becky and Oliver in his home after their first sexual encounter. It’s made clear that Oliver does not know that she’s pregnant. Oliver insists his absent wife must never find out, and that he and Becky are not having an “affair,” they’re just having sex. “I hate this whole thing like women can’t have sex without getting emotionally involved,” Becky assures him. The two of them run through a variety of fantasies, from hot schoolgirl to a threesome with neighbor Jenny’s former au pair. Remarkably, once Becky is sexually satisfied, the pipes in her home stop making noise. This is where, for me, the play veers into a bit of magical realism; the house becomes the personification of Becky’s feelings.
Things go back to normal with the house once Oliver’s wife returns, and he tells Becky that they must stop seeing each other now that Alice is back. Becky can’t bear it, and rushes over to confront him—dressed in a flimsy slip. Alice greets her at the door, and makes no comment about Becky’s strange attire. In fact, it goes wholly unremarked upon by anyone, leading me to wonder if this represents that Becky is now operating in a type of dream-state. After all, nearly everyone’s had a dream in which you’re undressed, and perhaps going about their business quite normally until you suddenly realize you’re naked. According to a dream dictionary: “Depending on the type of clothes you wear, you can hide your identity or be someone else. But without them, everything is hanging out for all to see. You are exposed and left without any defenses. Thus your naked dream may be telling you that you are trying to be something that you really are not.”
In the madonna/whore dichotomy that is perhaps the most prominent theme of this play, Becky is a whore to Oliver; Alice is the madonna. Becky tells Oliver that she has fallen in love with him, and begs him to run away with her. He rejects her, threatening to expose her secrets to the village and make her the town laughingstock if she doesn’t leave him alone. (“They’ll say… stupid slag. She got what she deserved.”)
Riding her bicycle home, Becky has an accident, and is rushed to the hospital. Her baby is fine, but when John is banging around the kitchen looking for something, he discovers a cabinet full of plastic Tesco bags, and he flies off the handle. John, a big believer in organic food and ethically sourced meat, is furious that his wife has been shopping at such a downmarket retailer. Finding a receipt in a bag, he reads aloud the list of purchases: “Celery. Basmati rice. Condoms. Brie.” Becky freezes, but John continues: “Did you eat it? The brie. Where is it?” To John, Becky is so firmly entrenched in the “madonna” category that the condoms don’t even register with him; he can only obsess over the fact that she may have done damage to her—their—fetus by eating soft cheese from the grocery store. (John has confessed to Jenny that he wishes he could be the one to carry their baby, proving him to be at the code-red level of control freak.)
The play ends with Becky swearing that she never wants to have sex again, and asking John for assurances that he won’t leave her, “whatever happens.” She has been tamed, punished for having sex, pushed back firmly into the “madonna” camp. I suppose this is what some people may object to. However, I would imagine that Skinner meant to show us how unfair it is that women are pigeonholed, with “good girls” forced to apologize for their sexual nature (and what could be more natural than the hormones that come with pregnancy?) and “bad girls” tarred for life with epithets like “slag.”
The heat wave has broken, and so has Becky’s libido; the bicycle, representing her freedom, lies “mangled and abandoned on the side of the road.” The viewer is left wondering what could have happened to create a different ending for Becky. Could John have become more enlightened? Should she have contented herself with the porn DVDs? Becky has been utterly humiliated in some other ways I haven’t detailed in this review, wanting to preserve at least a few surprises. Yes, it’s all rather depressing, and some people may have preferred a more hopeful ending. (An earlier monologue by Jenny proves that things don’t get any better once you’re a mum.) But I was reminded of some of the critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, which was frequently cited for being too despairing and bleak about racism in 21st century America. “I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life,” wrote Coates, “whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.” It’s entirely possible that Skinner feels the same about the options for women in 21st century England. That doesn’t make her, or her play, anti-feminist; it makes her a realist, someone interested in exploring questions for which no easy answers exist.
One final note: the Chronicle review didn’t really touch on the production at all, just the play itself, and since what I wrote here is in many ways a reaction to that piece, I haven’t yet mentioned the actors, direction, etc. I’ve been a Shotgun subscriber since 2005, and have seen every mainstage play they’ve done since then. One thing that defines Shotgun is their willingness to take risks; they’re never going to focus-group their artistic choices, and I appreciate that. I want to be challenged. “The Village Bike” is very much in the tradition of Shotgun’s edgier work. They’re very lucky this year to have a repertory company of actors working on several plays at once (“Bike” will run in rep through the end of the year, along with the other four plays they’re presenting in 2016). Some of the Bay Area’s finest performers, including Kevin Clarke (Oliver) and Megan Trout (Alice), are in this core troupe.
I was less familiar with Elissa Stebbins, who plays Becky, and gives a performance that is fierce, vulnerable and brave. This is an exceedingly tricky role that I would imagine many actresses would not be willing to go anywhere near, but Stebbins is more than up to the task. Clarke is one of my favorite local actors, and he’s perfectly cast here as the rakish Oliver. Kudos to director Patrick Dooley for putting together a talented team and giving them the support they needed to give fine performances without being distracted by the controversy surrounding this show.