Meetup #38: Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike

Antigonick01Our 38th Meetup event took us back to Shotgun Players for Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike by (WWSF attended Marisela Treviño Orta’s Heart Shaped Nebula in 2015)

Synopsis: Becky’s got sweaty pipes. Banging and groaning in the middle of the night, something’s got to be done. While her husband spends all his time poring over baby books, Becky takes charge and “brings in a man” to get the job done. Things get complicated. The Village Bike looks dead-on at the world’s view of women’s sexuality with a hilarious, steamy and provocative plunge into intimacy, pornography and the anxiety of expectant parents.

“A genuinely daring new play… about sex, the all-encompassing kind that makes people forget who and where they are.” —New York Times

“An uncommon and revitalizing entry in mainstream theater.” —New York Times

Women artists working on the production include performers El Beh, Elissa Stebbins, and Megan Trout; set designer Nina Ball; costume designerValera Coble, sound designer Hannah Birch Carl; and choreographer Beth Wilmurt.

The Village Bike features Set Design by Nina Ball, Costume Design by Valera Coble, Sound Design byHannah Birch Carl, Light Design by Ray Oppenheimer, Properties Design by Noah Kramer, & Choreography by Beth Wilmurt.

If you saw the show with WWSF or on your own, please leave a comment and share your feedback!

33 responses to “Meetup #38: Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike

  1. Our post show conversation at Jupiter ranged from references to Hollywood code films where ‘bad’ women were always punished (like Becky and her bike accident) to particular resonance around Becky’s line that she knew men were looking at her and wanting to have sex with her and a definite sense of disappointment with the fact that she told Oliver that she had fallen in love with him. Our take on that moment was that perhaps Becky said those things because she thought she was supposed to say them, that on some level she had bought into another idea she mentioned in the play – that for most women sex and love are supposed to go together and that even though they might not be for her, she was acting out of some subconscious sense of how a woman is supposed to behave.

  2. For me personally, the strongest moment of the play was when John (Nick Medina) confronts Becky (Elissa Stebbins) about the Tesco bags and reads the grocery list and flips out over the chicken and the brie, completely missing the condoms – a culmination of the hints all over the play that he’s mentally turned his wife into an incubator, when she is a person with a body that wants to move and go and ride bikes and have sex – it’s the paternalistic viewpoint that’s at the center of so much legislation that affects womens bodies. I so wanted to see Becky respond to being on the receiving end of that viewpoint from the man she loves.

    I also need to shout out Nina Ball, set designer – I;ve just realized that with Shotgun’s repertory season this year, she’s designed the bones of a set that will be functional for all of the shows this season, and then dressing it with different skins for different plays, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that will play out across the different shows.

    • “Didn’t get the point of the play. An unhappy and sexually frustrated pregnant woman is so desperate she becomes a sexual addict and falls in love with an abusive married man. What propels her to behave in such an extreme way didn’t make sense to me. Though, I understand her need to be acknowledged (since in many ways her husband is clueless) as a sexual woman and not just “an incubator”. Also the scene in which she is sexually assaulted is perplexing. I thought, however, that it was well directed with strong acting….”

      • Thanks Dina for commenting. I’m curious – what scene are you referring to as the scene where Becky is sexually assaulted? The part where she’s in the kitchen and her husband is upstairs? I read that scene as enacting a sexual assault fantasy, something she and Oliver (Kevin Clarke) had planned to do.

  3. Wish I could have stuck around for the discussion afterwards. For me, too, the most uncomfortable, WTF moment was when Becky came back to Oliver’s and told him she loved him. On the other hand, I would have been disappointed with the playwright if Becky had only made safe/reasonable/completely understandable/ approved-by-me choices, once Becky has metaphorically started racing downhill with her hands off the handlebars. Becky wants what she wants and in that moment she wants to confront Oliver with a declaration of love. (Not for a moment do I think she actually loves him– was it more role-playing for her, a scenario she wanted to play out and he didn’t?). Ouch– I really cringed for her! But part of me was wondering, hey, is my comfort level with female characters making “wrong” choices (however ‘wrong’ is defined in context) different than my comfort level with male characters doing similar? And if so, why?
    Yes, loved the moment with the grocery list and the Tesco bags. Loved the use of the bike (‘she’) as metaphor throughout. Loved the moment when Becky’s husband blurts out: “I wish I could have the baby.” The depth of his desire for control really comes to the foreground at that moment.
    Wonderful & rich play, excellent cast. BTW, Nina Bell also did the fantastic stage set for Chester Bailey at A.C.T Strand playing now. Always love her work!

  4. I saw the show on Wednesday night. I had read the script about a year ago. The rhythm of the play is very English, if that makes sense. I enjoyed that a lot.

    I especially liked, thematically, how people seem to be playing out, and trapped by the “Madonna/whore” binary trope. Even the men: John was a “Madonna” and Oliver is a “whore.” The men also slot women into those categories, which repulses Becky. Becky’s dilemma is that she is trying to integrate and express many parts of herself, but there are no men who will accept that. In the end, she seems to reject sex, but she goes on being a “whore” every night on an endless loop on John’s phone. I was left with a sense of the despair and loneliness of the people of this village, trapped in this bifurcated life. That’s my initial reaction (just saw it).

    • Thanks Pat – I really love your interpretation of the final image of the play – I was having trouble reconciling that with the rest of the piece – although I think you’ve confused characters John is Becky’s husband (played by Nick Medina), but at the end of the play the ‘endless loop’ you refer to is happening on the plumber Mike’s phone (played by David Sinaiko). So which character is your Madonna – John or Mike?

      • Yes, sorry, that should have read “but she goes on being a ‘whore’ every night on an endless loop on Mike’s phone.” I mentioned above that John, the husband, is the (sexless) “Madonna” in the marriage. Mike’s dead wife is the “Madonna” and Becky is the “whore.” Actually all the wives are slotted into the madonna category.

        In my opinion, because the final image was of Mike, the play came ’round to be about the village. And I agree it is a bleak, bleak view. But I do see it as everyone being trapped and made so alone by this (fake) duality.

  5. The people who saw this at the Works by Women meetup on Sunday will know that I was kind of in a weird “burn it all down” mood during our discussion afterwards, and I’m only now figuring out why. This was a hard week to be a woman (the Stanford rape-case verdict; anxiety and fearmongering about Hillary Clinton) and THE VILLAGE BIKE is not a consoling play. I think it perturbed me more deeply than I was willing to admit in public on Sunday, because even though it’s by a woman and is ostensibly in favor of idea that women are sexual beings, it presents such a bleak vision of womanhood. Either you marry a “nice guy” like John who will mansplain to you and patronize you, or you have sex with a misogynist like Oliver whose brutality turns you on. You buy a bike, and no one wants you to buy it anyway, and it ends up leading you to perdition. There is no freedom and no way out, and you were a fool to even think that there was.

    • Thanks Marissa – this is really insightful. My question though is – even if this is a hard message to handle (and a message that a lot of women deal with regularly), does that mean don’t do the play/don’t go see the play? What value is there in having a non-consoling play out there for all to see?

      • Yeah, this is a complex issue. I don’t think I would have given THE VILLAGE BIKE an “empty chair” rating the way that Lily Janiak did, I think it could have valuable things to say about 21st-century life, but I also think that (maybe because of the marketing?) I was expecting something more “empowering” and less likely to leave me feeling hopeless. I’ve heard it said that the goal of journalism should be to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and sometimes I think that theater should do that as well; but I kind of feel like THE VILLAGE BIKE just further afflicts the afflicted, by implying that there is absolutely no way that heterosexual women can ever find romantic or sexual fulfillment, or be thought of as fully autonomous human beings. (And then I wonder where I get off calling myself “afflicted” — maybe I’m not, maybe I should be called “comfortable,” and so should Becky, because even though we are women we are also fairly privileged members of society.) Anyway. I do think it’s important to talk frankly about real problems that exist in society, but I also don’t like works that imply there is no other alternative.

  6. Given this engaged discussion, I doubly sorry I missed the play due to crazy traffic. Marissa’s description of the play’s bleak message resonated for me, because at the core, I have always carried a burning nugget of feminist rage over the fact that I have never quite been able to get the men in my life to perceive my humanity as fully as I experience it myself. Perhaps one reason to pen or attend a bleak play is that a play that gives voice and dimension to the darkest aspects of our gendered lives might actually make some of us feel less crazy about our own impossible feminist struggles. And perhaps there is some mental and emotional relief in that. I understand that the main character was pregnant. My own experience of pregnancy and motherhood has been wonderful on the one hand and deeply unsettling on the other. In my first few years as a mother, I experienced incredible depression that I finally came to understand as a by-product of cognitive dissonance – the immense pressure that results from attempting to hold two contradictory truths in the mind. On the one hand, I was a highly educated, highly trained artist who was poised to have a career and make a contribution. On the other hand, I was a caregiver who was fundamentally “on the hook” to my child in a way that my husband seemed to not experience and who couldn’t afford childcare that would allow me to work at low-wage artistic jobs. I know many many women who experience this same bifurcating dilemma.

    • Christine, the play addresses those feelings, precisely. Becky talks about having men look at her sexually (the male gaze) and how, because her husband ignores her, she craves that. Then, Oliver’s wife (who desires a child) talks about seeing pregnant women get smiled at in the street by everyone, especially by other women. Finally, Becky’s friend complains at being left by her traveling husband, and stuck at home with a five year old boy who calls her “stupid” when she has an advanced degree in theoretical astrophysics!

  7. Women!!! Thank you so very much for the discussion that’s happening here. Thank you for sharing your experiences, your thoughts, and what is troubling/enlightening for you. I have so many of my own thoughts about the play, that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to be succinct enough for a single post here. I am also deeply troubled by the Chronicle article (I will not call it a review, because it actually isn’t–I’ll get to that), which writes the play off entirely as being unuseful, claiming it shouldn’t be performed, except as satire, and that the actor performances didn’t matter. The play matters a lot to me, as I’ve been thinking about my reaction to it for over a week now. To Valerie’s question about whether we should be putting these plays out there, I think we absolutely SHOULD. What was so profound for me is that a female playwright shined a big old light on these relationships and said, “look at this. This is how things are.” And if this is the reality of our world–I think we damn well BETTER be looking at where the light is shining. And talk about it, and how we feel about it. Which is happening in this thread, and I am so, so grateful. I also hope that ANYONE who found the show provocative and/or moving will recommend it to people, as Ms. Janiak has seen fit to, very publicly, damningly neglect to mention any part of the actual production, or the work of any of the actors, thus, not actually reviewing the production itself, but simply trashing the script, saying the evening is useless, and invalidating a lot of really brave and beautiful work from the entire ensemble. I found it useful, and I thought the work was good, and I am hoping anyone else who did will spread the word, so we can get even more people in this conversation.

    • Jenna May – thanks for jumping in here and for answering my question. I’ve been thinking today about the acting ensemble of The Village Bike, and the extraordinary Elissa Beth Stebbins, who is delivering some of the strongest acting work I’ve seen in 2016, hands down!

    • Jenna – If you are on FB – please post this comment there! I think burying the play really cuts off an important part of the conversation, as you so aptly point out.

      • Hello, Liz! I’ve been super vocal on FB about my intense support for this play, and will continue to do so! Thank you, Valerie, for linking this conversation to the review’s comment section. Thank you all for being interested in the discussion. Interested in the why. Interested in hearing and thinking and feeling. I am very moved by the conversation that is already starting.

      • Also feeling very moved – a goal of Works by Women SF is to create public space for discussion that all can participate in – as opposed to discussion that is only shared by friends or groups on social media. I am thrilled for all of the voices here.

    • FWIW I believe the play is very obviously a critique of gender roles in a tiny and backwards English village. And a well-observed, written, directed, and acted one at that. Yes, disturbing and bleak, too.

      • Thanks Pat – I’m curious to know more about this village – a suburb of London? Far to the North? Not sure if it is specified in the script or elsewhere.

  8. Just read the review — this is a fascinating conversation and thanks everyone for sharing their thoughts!

    My initial reaction to the play was that, yes, the script did echo sexist ideology, but I don’t think it intended to perpetuate it or let it slide by unchallenged. When confronted with the unpleasant, sexist reality that Becky is stuck in as the “truth” of the play’s world, it seems like my own inclination as well as the reviewer’s was to rebel against it. But my take was that the play was assuming (hoping?) that the audience would do that (i.e. push back on the content), so that the play becomes not just what’s onstage, but a collaboration between the artists and audiences in creating the full beast of the thing. (It reminded me a little of Sarah Kane — she isn’t saying that audiences *should* be consuming the things that happen in Blasted without pushing back against them, for example.) One of the reasons I found myself thinking along these lines is because of the consumption of media within the play (e.g. the porn Becky watches, and to some extent the video she makes), where the purpose of the media is to elicit a reaction in the viewer. Another is because listening to the audience’s “ooh”s and laughs and “ugh”s became part of the soundscape for me along with the pipes. I think it’s legitimate of Shotgun to assume that their generally progressive audience will (generally) watch against the content of the play, rather than with it, and play along in the challenge the script poses, rather than mindlessly accept the values inherent in the words themselves.

    I do think there’s value in putting a play like this onstage. Seeing women’s sexuality onstage still feels pretty transgressive to me (may be just my age), and getting to see it be complicated and not ultimately completely empowering was more powerful because it wasn’t perfectly digestible. I don’t think the script’s ideology is “antedeluvian” (though I wish it was) — a lot of it, from the mansplaining to sex/sexuality being taboo — is still stuff we run into daily. And while I agree that in some respects the play “might as well be set” during the same era as the 18th century porn, my read on that was that it was a purposeful elision between the past and present, a challenge to folks watching who think we’re beyond that. In many ways I think the play is pretty consciously tragic — more so because, like the review said, it’s superficially so formulaic (a melodrama where a women indulges her sexuality, gets physically punished, etc.).

    Anyway, in sum, I’m totally open to the possibility that I’m just making excuses on behalf of the script (and maybe this is just because I enjoyed the performances, especially Elissa’s, so much), and also totally open to having my mind changed. I’ve found the conversation so far really compelling and would love to hear more people’s thoughts.

    • Thanks Alona! Happy to see you chime in here. I really like your example of the soundscape and this concept of watching a play ‘against’ its content.

  9. Wow this is such a great conversation. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and thoughtfulness about the play. It is an interesting piece to be involved with and your perspectives are really enlightening.

    The Chronicle piece is rough. I understand the extremely strong negative reaction. But the review, such as it is, is such a personal reaction it feels weird to see something so personally dismissive in a major paper. I am not sure the production ever had a chance given the reviewer’s reaction to the material. But, I guess that she felt a powerful reaction was called for.

    I hope it’s ok for me to chime in. Thank you all, again.

      • PS – Valerie, the script specifies “a village somewhere in middle England…”
        Middle England may refer to the center of the country, north of London and from Birmingham to points east. Or, in another definition it is a euphemism for the conservative mainstream of the populace.

  10. I am a bit disappointed that the review didn’t mention anything positive about the acting, because Stebbins in particular was really stellar. I can understand Janiak’s point about the acting being superfluous if the show just shouldn’t have been produced, though– one issue is certainly bigger than the other.

    My issues with the show are all in the script itself. I think the biggest thing that didn’t work for me (and I’ll keep it there instead of going into ALL the things that bothered me…) was that it just didn’t feel believable, here and now– that people would be SO WORKED UP (particularly the husband) about a pregnant woman having a (pretty normal, in the beginning before the affair progresses) libido. I have two small children myself and many friends who have been pregnant in the past few years, and I literally cannot imagine any of us in this situation– where sex is something that can’t even be discussed between husband and wife, or among friends– where a progressive husband would be THIS out of touch with reality. It felt like the play may have felt “current” 15 years ago, or in a different location, but it didn’t ring true to me enough to be believable, and that soured all the sexual action on stage for me and made it feel unnecessary.

    • Thanks Isabelle! Great to have more perspective from those who’ve experienced pregnancy. And to your point about the attitudes towards discussing sex feeling relevant 15 years ago, I believe this play is around 5 years old. And I do wonder if we (a Bay Area audience) are having difficulty with this play culturally, in what my partner would call the ‘English to English’ translation of the thing…

      • The play read as VERY British to me, which was a bit of a disappointment because I was expecting something different, I guess, that felt more culturally current and applicable. (Are we just ahead of the times here in the Bay Area? I’m from WI and can’t even imagine such provincial attitudes from friends THERE, so when I assumed they were in some town that was a far-out suburb of London, I was expecting more cosmopolitan characters.) I’m not sure if there was actually something in the marketing that contributed to my misunderstanding of what the play was going to be, or if I just made random erroneous assumptions.

      • Thanks Isabelle – here’s the marketing blurb from the Shotgun website for comparison “Becky’s got sweaty pipes. Banging and groaning in the middle of the night, something’s got to be done. While her husband spends all his time poring over baby books, Becky takes charge and “brings in a man” to get the job done. Things get complicated. The Village Bike looks dead-on at the world’s view of women’s sexuality with a hilarious, steamy and provocative plunge into intimacy, pornography and the anxiety of expectant parents.”

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