Shopping, Fucking and Theater--All in Downtown Fullerton!

In its 12 years of staging the most visceral, uncompromisingly political and balls-to-the-walls theater that Orange County had ever seen, the Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company never staged a signature show. Mostly because nearly everything the Santa Ana-based company did adhered so closely to its politically and sexually-charged aesthetic.

But there were certainly shows that defined the company, none more obvious than Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, which RGTC mounted in 2001.

RGTC had already staged some two dozen shows by this time from writers as varied as Sam Shepard to Jean-Paul Sartre, but Ravenhill's black comedy of sex, drugs and violence among a seedy group of London junkies, whores and assorted cast-offs seemed to truly announce the presence of a theater company unafraid to push the boundaries.

So, some nine years later, it's not surprising that the Monkey Wrench Collective, led in large part by RGTC's former artistic director (and OC Weekly's resident Art Whore) Dave Barton, has tagged Shopping and Fucking in its debut year in Fullerton.

We caught up with Mr. Barton and his picked his brain on Ravenhill and his play.

OC Weekly: Graphic title, graphic language and sexual content. But is there more going on to Shopping and Fucking than pure shock value?

People who take the time to look past the more exploitative elements are going to find a host of things to talk about: The nature of addiction; the ruthlessness of Capitalism; our tendency to turn relationships into transactions; the pyscho-babble of 12-step programs; the ritualization of sexual abuse; how poverty pushes people to extreme behavior; the corrosive effects of junk food and pop culture; the brain-washing manipulations of television and marketing; and he hidden predatory messages of The Lion King, just to name a few.

It also begs the question: Is the play still shocking? I've directed so many plays with rough subject matter that I don't always feel connected to just how rough some of that work may be until people walk out or complain. We had a complaint about the poster a couple of days ago and five walk-outs our first weekend--including a critic--so I guess the visceral quality still holds up after all these years.

How has your relationship with the play changed since the first time you directed it? Do you find more things to unearth the second time around?

Ravenhill's work operates on a lot of different levels and I've found that when I've revisited them they always reward me with new insights. The first time I did the play, I took his themes very seriously--even too seriously, in hindsight. I was intimidated by the explicitness of the sex and directed the play with a focus on the more tragic aspects. while my first cast really went where they needed in order to capture the grittiness of the sex, we missed a lot of the play's humor.

This time around, I'm far more comfortable with on-stage sexuality and I have a cast even braver than the first, so the play is a bit more explicit than the first time. The cast has also really nailed the comedy--people who saw the first production will laugh a lot more this time around.

Another difference is that as good as that first production was, I'm not sure I fully understood the play's harshness and I think I tried to soften some of it, unconsciously. The play's world view is bleak and uncompromising. I think this second production serves that darkness better.

I should also say that Ravenhill almost always offers his characters a grace note by play's end, so the critical accusations of nihilism aimed at his early work were lame attempts at dealing with the discomfort his plays create.

You have built a close relationship with Ravenhill over the years. Have you had any conversations with him during that time that have illuminated some aspect of his work?

I have directed nine productions of seven of Mark's plays. According to Greenwich College in London, I have directed more productions of his plays than anyone in the world. I aim to keep that record. But Mark doesn't really like to talk interpretation and our conversations are usually about other things than his plays. If I get hung up on the mood or intent of a certian scene, he's been there to clarify things, but really left me to make them work for U.S. audiences.

This is the seventh production since launching your company earlier this year. There's been heady stuff, like Wallace Shawn's The Fever, and dark stuff, like Pool (no water), but nothing quite like Shopping and Fucking. Any concern that once the powers-that-be catch wind of just what's happening inside the space at 204 N. Harbor Blvd., that Monkey Wrench will be a theater-non-grata in Fullerton?

It's just a play. Granted, it's more sexually graphic and violent than anything you're going to see at any other local theater, but in the end it's just a play. A play with a heart and a brain, not a live sex show.

As for the powers-that-be: As far as I know, they aren't censors, so I don't think we have anything to worry about.

Monkey Wrench Collective, 204 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (800) 838-3006; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 6 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Thru Dec. 19. $10-$20.

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