Heading into the forcefully cheerful holiday season, Scena Theatre’s got a nasty little gift waiting for audiences at the Anacostia Playhouse. Mark Ravenhill’s Handbag is packed with copious on-stage sex, drug abuse, and extreme violence of the emotional and physical variety. Theatergoers who enjoy the occasional deep-dive into the dark side should leave the kids at home and indulge themselves in this nasty good time. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Billed by Scena as a sequel/prequel to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Handbag concerns the doomed efforts of several centuries-separated Londoners to become fully fledged adults by taking on responsibility for other human lives and discovering how dreadfully damaging that can be for the emotionally ill-equipped.
At first glance, Handbag appears to be a fairly standard “dark domestic secrets” drama as we are introduced to two contemporary same-sex couples teaming up to conceive and jointly raise a child. Tom (Edward Nagel) and Mauretta (Anne Nottage) are the enthusiastic biological parents. Suzanne (Amanda Forstrom) and David (Gray West) are their more ambivalent partners.
Tom’s delivery day dalliance with homeless petty criminal Phil (Robert Sheire) sets the inevitable tragic dominoes falling. Meanwhile, centuries in the past, several characters from and inspired by Earnest experience parallel domestic pains. Over the course of the night, as sins are exposed and the emotional knives come out, the timelines begin to crash into each other. Think Arcadia, but with more blowjobs.
Handbag is spawned from the UK’s influential and infamous “in-yer-face” theater movement of the ‘90s, the proponents of which held topping each other in depictions of raw human suffering, vulnerability and degradation as a badge of honor. Despite the sheer amount of sex and violence, director Robert McNamara goes to fairly extreme lengths to avoid showing the audience any dangly bits. The sheer amount of towel choreography in one bathing scene skirts absurdity.
Closes November 30, 2014
2020 Shannon Place SE
1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
McNamara’s choice to stage in-the-round does little to add to the story, instead often leaving at least a quarter of the audience staring at actor’s backs for whole scenes. What might be gained in intimacy is lost in clarity and the two don’t quite balance. For instance, one key moment in the plot was nigh unto invisible from my seat, taking place on the opposite side of a chaise lounge. The staging choice also exposes flaws in the production design, including a television supposedly conveying key visual information that never turns on, and a sound design in which every effect blasts from the same distant off-stage corner. Judging from my own view, I’d guess that the best seats are in section to one’s immediate left as you enter the theatre.
Despite threatening to trip over it’s own production flourishes, Handbag largely works. The twin-timeline conceit allows the largely double-cast actors to have fun contrasting two fairly extreme acting styles in the hyper-naturalism of “in-yer-face” and the nastily mannered comedy of Wilde. Nottage is a lot of scenery-chewing fun, piling on the Irish brogue in the Wildeish scenes. Shiere is the night’s standout, his ne’er do well Phil a gaping black hole of infantile need, gobbling up love and attention from any possible source in his vague and damned quest to become “a person.”
Scena’s taking a lot of commendable risks here, producing a pitch-black comedy for adults in one of the city’s newest venues. As theatre spaces in the increasingly pricey Northwest quadrant disappear, there’s a vibrant little community popping up in Anacostia, with the Playhouse and nearby Anacostia Arts Center becoming affordable new homes for the area’s smaller and emerging companies. One hopes that audiences are ready to reward that daring.
Author’s note: I directed Shiere in a reading earlier this year.
Handbag by Mark Ravenhill . Directed by Robert McNamara . Featuring Anne Nottage, Gray West, Amanda Forstrom, Robert Sheire, Haely Jardas, and Edward C. Nagel . Produced by Scena . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
Closes Nov 30
Michael Poandl . DCMetroTheaterArts hilarious, cringe-inducing, deeply thoughtful and socially conscious
Benjamin Tomchik . BroadwayWorld Scena does its best to stage this complicated drama, but can’t overcome the play’s limitations.
Jennifer Minich . MDTheatreGuide complex, grotesque and enticing.