In the past week, I’ve had the mixed blessing of seeing some very good shows that put the very bad side of human nature on gruesome display. The characters in Scena’s Handbag, a daring pitch black comedy by British playwright Mark Ravenhill, are not so much bad as they are supremely fucked up. They lie to each other, cheat on each other, mistreat the children and are generally self-absorbed. But, damn it, there is something endearing about these people “at the bottom of theheap” as director (and Artistic Director of Scena) Robert McNamara puts in his Director’s Note. Or, if not endearing, then at least pitiful. And in this hilarious, cringe-inducing, deeply thoughtful and socially conscious DC premiere, Scena has once again showcased its refreshing willingness to push the envelope, and show theatre-goers something they didn’t even know they were missing.
Handbag consists of two parallel storylines, with all the actors save one playing two roles, in the 1860s and 1990s, respectively. In the latter period, two same sex couples use in vitro fertilization to conceive a child, and in the former, a child is born the old fashioned way, but then handed off to a nanny. The trick is that the Victorian characters are drawn from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Director Robert McNamara stages the 19th century scenes as outsized farces, with the characters running about in big dresses and outlandish accents. But of course, in the contemporary scenes, the characters are just as ridiculous, even if they don’t strut about as clownishly.
Scena’s production is carried along by an exemplary cast. Mauretta (Anne Nottage) and Suzanne (Amanda Forstrom) are hardworking, trendy lesbians for whom everything, including loving a child, must be worked into the schedule. Tom (Edward C. Nagel) is the neurotic, clingy sperm donor, while his partner David (Gray West) is a bit of an arse hole with an “itchy dick” as Suzanne puts it. He promptly begins a relationship with Phil (Bob Sheire), a junkie hustler who yearns to be taken care of by somebody, anybody. Not one to be tied down, Phil begins his own courtship with Lorraine (Haely Jardas), a fellow denizen of the lower orders who also works as Mauretta and Suzanne’s nanny. At the center of all this is the child, who is the center of attention and, at the same time, utterly ignored.
The actors are fearless on stage, engaging in several types of sexual activity, intravenous drug use, and a variety of physical and verbal abuses. The very best moments come from the two lower class characters, Phil (Bob Sheire) and Lorraine (Haely Jardas). Sheire, especially, is a tremendous presence on stage, at once funny and tragic as the helpless, addicted, guilt ridden Phil. Handbag can be intense, and it lives up to the “in-yer-face” genre of 90s British playwriting to which it is now attributed. The show is mostly gorgeous, with a colorful light design by Marianne Meadows and sumptuous Victorian costumes by Megan Holeva. Handbag is staged in the round, a curious decision which results in some lovely stage pictures, but can also seriously hinder ones view of the action on stage.
Handbag is not just a vicious satire of bourgeoisie parenting, or a critique of modern consumerism. It is also about what people will do when they are desperate to connect with another human being. There are times when we all want to be taken care of. The question is, when morality is tossed out the window and we feel like dirt, how far are we capable of going in our quest to feel whole?
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with no intermission.