Becky desperately wants sex. The young woman and her cherubic husband, John, are having a baby. They’ve decided to settle down in a cottage in provincial England — part of a small village community where no one has anything better to do than sniff out their neighbors’ dirty laundry. Becky and John haven’t had sex since that positive pregnancy test. (John, the sweetie, doesn’t want to hurt the baby!) And it’s driving Becky up the walls. So, she buys a bike from a hot neighbor to get out of the house — but ends up with more than that to ride.
That’s the basic premise of The Village Bike, British playwright Penelope Skinner’s wildly popular, award-winning play that’s being presented by Shotgun Players through June 26, with repertory performances throughout the rest of the year. In the Shotgun version, directed by Patrick Dooley, our star is Elissa Stebbins, whose brown bob is normie enough to fit her right into the village of squares, but also short and bouncy enough to foreshadow the eventual reveal of her ultra kinky side. At any given moment, she appears on the verge of combustion — an impressive performance of pent up energy. On the other hand, Nick Medina effectively renders John as the human equivalent of a limp dick. Very soon, his sexless, saccharine displays of affection eradicate any pity that the audience may have had for him simply by virtue of being so irritating. (Actually, his character would have been more interesting if he were more relatable, but he doesn’t gain much depth.)
In the first act, that gender-stereotype-defying dynamic serves as fertile ground for more smart and risqué normative contradictions. Becky becomes totally consumed by her libido, watching porn whenever she has a spare moment. She buys a baby doll to try to seduce her husband, but ends up wearing it all the time. She feels as if every man she meets wants to have sex with her — and when the plumber (endearingly played by David Sinaiko) stops by, she can barely keep her robe on. But anytime she tries to explain this awakened sexuality to her husband or her friend (El Beh), they blame it on pregnancy hormones and shrug her off.
This is the best portion of the play. We see Becky struggle by being confined within her tiny house, within the narrow-mindedness of the people around her, and within the limitations that society places on female sexuality. And along with that squirming, we get near constant sexual innuendos cleverly layered into the dialogue so that soon the audience starts feeling as if they’re the ones who are sex obsessed. Pleasingly, these eventually give way to an aroused blossoming when Becky meets promiscuous married hunk Oliver (Kevin Clarke) and, finally, two characters have some satisfying chemistry.
In the second act, it’s exciting to see Becky embrace the newfound freedom she gets from her bike — and to roll your eyes at her husband’s condescending warnings not to ride too fast. (It’s a metaphor, get it?) But soon, the production takes a turn that ultimately declaws the story’s feminist potential. Becky begins to embody as many female stereotypes as she dispelled in the first act, and her sexual frustration devolves into desperate, neurotic nagging.
Flawed, complex characters are always appreciated, but Becky’s pathetic demise undermines the first act in a way that makes you question the point of the play. And when she proves her husband right by crashing her bike in the rain, the regressive plot point is utterly disappointing — not to mention unconvincingly executed.
For anyone simply looking for a night of entertainment, The Village Bike is still a worthy production. As typical for Shotgun, the acting is on point. The sound effects, set design, and scene changes are cute and cinematic. And the play manages to be both sexy and funny without being awkward (except when intended).
But don’t go into it expecting to have your sexual horizons expanded or gain a better understanding of the excitement of being a sex-positive “slut.” For that, you’d be better served staying home and watching some radical feminist porn.