- February 10, 2015
To paraphrase William Goldman, “Hollywood films tell us truths we already know or falsehoods we want to believe in. Hollywood films reinforce, reassure. Independent films have a different agenda. They tell us things we don’t want to know. Independent films unsettle.”
The same can be said of independent live theater.
Case in point: Anna Jordan’s “Chicken Shop,” the Urbanite Theatre’s debut offering and the play’s United States premiere. It offers unsettling realities for the politically correct and traditionally moral alike. It’s damn fine theater. And a damn sad play.
The plot is a collision between adolescent angst and sex-trafficking in New York City. A 16-year-old kid tagged with the awkward name of “Hendrix” (Joseph Flynn) becomes bully bait when the other kids at school find out that his mom is in a same-sex relationship. (Cruel adolescent logic dictates that if Hendrix’ mom is gay, he must be gay — and must be punished.) Desperate to prove his non-gayness, Hendrix starts looking for a prostitute. An ad in The Village Voice leads Hendrix to Luminita (Ashley Scallon) — a sex-trafficking victim who lives above a chicken shop in virtual slavery under the brutal oversight of Leko (Jason Bradley). Hendrix has no clue; he thinks she’s earning her tuition at NYU. Luminita and Hendrix postpone the dirty deed and form a tentative friendship. Ultimately, he figures out the score — and is helpless to save her. (Leko promises a vile fate to Luminita’s little sister if she ever escapes.) His mother, Hilary (Lauren Wood) and her lover, Katie (Lucy Lavely), are helpless to save him. Hendrix hits the road to find his female father figure (and mother’s previous lover) at the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Jordan’s material is well-written and tough-minded, jumping back and forth between the upper-middle-class problems of Hendrix’ home life and the soul-destroying hell of Luminita’s sexual slavery. Director Barbara Redmond creates the exactly right tone: a sense you’re eavesdropping on real people in real situations, disturbing or quirky though they may be. Monica Cross’ costumes and Rick Cannon’s excellent set (a clever adaptation to the Urbanite Theatre’s shotgun shack space) help bring that reality home.
The actors do what all good actors do. They convince you they’re not really acting. Flynn nicely captures the essence of his character — a multilayered, gifted kid in at the peak of puberty who’s trapped in a no-win situation. Wood’s Hilary is a sympathetic character getting over the loss of one lover and trying to placate the diva needs of the replacement while raising her conflicted son. Lavely is excellent as the diva in question — Katie’s supposed to be obnoxious and sexually teasing to poor Hendrix. But Lavely’s so full of charismatic brio, she makes her character hard to hate. As the thuggish pimp Leko, Bradley conveys a sense of genuine menace and a sickening mastery of the art of intimidation. Scallon’s take on Luminita is nothing less than shattering. Her character’s shut-down, blanked-out, pulled in — a perfect picture of PTSD. The name Luminita means “little light.” But you know she’s not going to get a chance to shine.
In case you haven’t noticed by now, this is not mainstream fare. Occasional nudity and profanity that’d make David Mamet blush isn’t really the issue. The truths at the heart of the play are. “Chicken Shop” has a lot to say — and it’s not what most people want to hear. The play’s cage-rattling insights include…
The separate peace of the counterculture is an illusion — at least if you’re raising a family. The culture punishes your kid if you don’t conform. Teenaged testosterone and the earth-friendly, non-sexist, Vegan lifestyle don’t mix. All boys are bad boys, but that’s not simply glib and cute. The sex-industry feeds off bad boy needs — and it’s an industry that increasingly owns its workers. Their lives don’t resemble “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
The lessons of the play? No. They’re more like inconvenient truths. This is an in-your-face slice of life, not an afterschool special. So, what do you do with these truths? Jordan offers no easy answers — except think about them. If you dare.
“Chicken Shop” is not for chickens, folks. It’s not for everybody, but hardcore theater fans will love it. The gutsy Urbanite Theatre is betting there are enough of them around here to make it worthwhile.
I’d say it’s a good bet.