‘The Village Bike’ crashes straight into sexist territory

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Becky, a schoolteacher, is pregnant. Because of this, her husband no longer wants to have sex with her. Confined to their new, fixer-upper home in the English countryside during summer vacation, a frustrated Becky seeks to fulfill her sexual desires in other ways: with porn, masturbation, an affair with a charming but chauvinistic neighbor and, finally, a dalliance with a lonely widowed plumber.

Now in its initial run at Shotgun Players through June 26 (followed by repertory performances until December), “The Village Bike,” certainly features plenty of sexual content. But the most shocking thing about the “The Village Bike” isn’t the sex: It’s the sexism.

It is very likely that playwright Penelope Skinner intended for her play to be a provocation, an exploration of how sexist expectations and male entitlement still permeate the contours of supposedly evolved contemporary relationships. Yet, Shotgun Players’ production neither satirizes nor criticizes the sexism the play presents in a meaningful way. As a result, “The Village Bike” feels antagonistic, outdated and often outright offensive.

The supposed erotic undercurrent of “The Village Bike” never fully materializes. While it is clear that Becky (a capable Elissa Stebbins) is sexually frustrated, her affair with Oliver (Kevin Clarke), a married townsman, never feels more than tepid, even as the duo pursue all sorts of entry-level sexual deviance. It should be noted, however, that sound designer Hannah Birch-Carl ingeniously uses the sound of dripping water (Becky’s home is plagued with old, groaning pipes) to underscore moments of sexual tension in the text, but when the sexiest thing about a play is its sound effects, well, you’ve got a problem.

In contrast to Oliver’s outright chauvinism (at one point he declares that “fat old women in bikinis” should be outlawed), Becky’s husband John (Nick Medina) represents a more insidious sexism: the kind that hides behind concern and goodwill. John “cares” so much about Becky that he patronizes her at every turn, putting the assumed needs of a fetus above those of his wife.

El Beh is delightfully familiar as Jenny, the quintessential over-involved, over-accessorized and thoroughly miserable neighbor, while Megan Trout is both dignified and perfectly shrewd as Oliver’s wife Alice. Despite glimmers of full-fledged characterization, “The Village Bike” is often farcical in ways that — whether intentional or not — distort the production’s emotional register. Scenes range from the darkly comedic, like a tableau in which Becky masturbates upstairs while John washes dishes in the kitchen below (charmingly, set designer Nina Ball’s two-level set of the couple’s country cottage features a kitchen sink with running water), to the patently absurd, such as when we learn that John does not want to have sex with Becky because he fears that intercourse poses a threat to the couple’s unborn child.

Ultimately, it is unclear why Skinner’s play has been lauded as groundbreaking feminist work. Is it because a woman wants to have sex? Because a woman wants to have sex more than her husband? Because this woman is pregnant? None of these facts come across as particularly revelatory, even as the ideas that “The Village Bike” attempts to engage with — such as sexism, paternalism and the silent creep of misogyny —  are worthy of examination.

There is much value to be found in difficult plays and characters that challenge audiences to rethink societal norms and individual biases. But, instead of generating thoughtful, productive discourse, “The Village Bike” is a fatal miscalculation — a play that aimlessly steeps the audience in ugly sexist thinking and misogynistic tropes. Ultimately, Shotgun’s production hovers too indistinctly between the play’s dual potential for either emotional rigor or farce to succeed. If anything, let “The Village Bike” serve as a stern reminder: There is nothing radical about reproducing sexism under the guise of provocation.

“The Village Bike” is playing at Shotgun Players through June 26 with repertory performances through December.

Contact Sarah Elizabeth Adler at [email protected].