Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Lighten Up -- It's Just Sex!

Life is messy. Relationships can be complicated. But if one were to identify the three factors most likely to put stress on any relationship, each of these has a unique capacity to destroy any sense of equilibrium.
  • Honesty: One of the quickest ways to destroy a relationship is by failing to communicate. When one partner withholds information from the other, lies about their behavior, or compartmentalizes their life so severely that they become an enigma to the person who should know them best, rebuilding any sense of trust or integrity becomes a monstrous challenge.
  • Money: When one person holds all the financial power in a relationship, it's easy to trivialize another's needs, desires, or sense of self. Without a true sense of self worth, the partner without financial security can shut down, act out, or opt out of a relationship.
  • Sex: The messiest factor of all usually confuses sex with love. From sexual appetite to role playing, from gender norms to infidelity, the promise of sex lures people into a playground of lust as often as a battlefield of betrayal.
The hardest thing for some people to realize is that no amount of how-to books or user manuals can substitute for paying attention to someone's emotions, yearnings, and sense of fulfillment. Despite having so much input about how things should happen, one's greatest life lessons are frequently learned from failure.

Two shorts screened at the 2016 Frameline Film Festival demonstrate how putting too much emphasis on sex can destroy a relationship (especially if one person's expectations are dangerously out of synch with their partner's).

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Jesse Reid's painfully candid short, Raw Footage, offers a perfect case in point. Dustin (Michael DeBartolo) and Colby (Christopher Poeschl) are two gay men whose previous relationships ended badly. In order to get off to a fresh start, they negotiated an understanding that would allow them to satisfy their respective sexual cravings with the blessings of an open relationship. As an important milestone approaches, Dustin's personal insecurities are threatening to ruin everything.
  • Dustin is hell-bent on filming their lovemaking to commemorate their third anniversary when Colby arrives home too drunk to have sex.
  • Dustin (who is feeling horribly underappreciated) wants to revert to a monogamous lifestyle and is demanding to know how many men Colby has been fucking.
  • Dustin is so intent on positioning their sex for the best camera angle that he completely drains the couple's lovemaking of any tenderness or spontaneity.
  • Colby is trying to be rational, Dustin is not.

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Written, directed, and beautifully performed by Björn Elgerd, We Could Be Parents is a monologue that takes viewers into unusual emotional territory. As the film opens, Erik (Björn Elgerd) sets up his camera in an industrial parking lot and begins talking to his lover, Marley, who has just broken up with him. Telling Marley that he's made a bad decision and that this is Erik's attempt to win back his love, he picks up a a two-foot long carrot from his mother's vegan friend, Lena (who lives in the woods without any electricity and uses her own excrement as fertilizer).

What may seem like a standard break-up video turns into something quite different when a car drives into the parking lot and Erik interrupts his monologue to greet the driver. After the man puts his dog outside of the car, Erik gets into the front passenger seat and goes down on one of his regular clients. Once they are done, the man puts his dog back in the car and drives off. Erik comes back to the camera, spits out the man's cum, and continues his monologue.

Björn Elgerd as Erik in We Could Be Parents

He explains to Marley that, despite what his lover may have thought, Erik was only selling sex in order to raise enough money to pay an American surrogate to help them have a child so that they could become parents. Knowing how much Marley loves children but detests the sexual exploitation of women in places like India, Erik stresses that he's found an American organization which uses middle-class women who are willing to donate their eggs and act as surrogates. Besides, although he's never told Marley, in the past he's donated his sperm to several lesbians who wanted children.

Poster art for We Could Be Parents

Even though Erik has a slight limp (which may be due to a birth defect), he's always been grateful for the way Marley stood up for him when other people were acting like assholes. He recalls how they first met, dropped Ecstasy at a club, and danced all night. Erik talks about how he's had to lie to his parents about why he and Marley have broken up and how much he misses being with his lover. Then he steps back, picks up a plastic object, and the camera lifts up into the air as Erik steers his drone into the abandoned warehouse where they first met. We Could Be Parents is an incredibly touching film about a good-hearted gay man who would love to become a father. Here's the trailer:

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The Shotgun Players in Berkeley recently unveiled a new production of Penelope Skinner's 2011 play entitled The Village Bike. Directed by Patrick Dooley on a multi-level unit set designed by Nina Ball, it focuses on a British schoolteacher in the early stages of pregnancy who is adjusting to life in a small town. At first, Becky (Elissa Beth Stebbins) seems happily married to John (Nick Medina). But problems soon arise, in large part due to John's lack of sexual interest in his pregnant wife.

Elissa Beth Stebbins (Becky) and Nick Medina) John
in a scene from The Village Bike (Photo by: Pak Han)

John is a film director who occasionally travels on business. He's also the kind of husband who is totally unaware of the ways in which he trivializes the emotional and physical needs of his wife. A gentle control freak who's a bit of a twit, John is the kind of potential father who wants to read all kinds of self-help books about welcoming a baby into his family. While extremely concerned about man's impact on the environment (John loathes the plastic bags still being used by Tesco in its supermarkets), he's nervous enough to have sworn off sex during his Becky's pregnancy because he's afraid that any thrusting with his erect penis could harm the embryo, resulting in a deformed child.

John (Nick Medina) is an anxious father-to-be trying to assemble a
mobile in a scene from The Village Bike (Photo by: Pak Han)

Becky, on the other hand, is hornier than usual. Frustrated by her husband's lack of attention, she occasionally likes to masturbate while watching porn all by herself on her laptop. While John obsesses about painting their child's nursery, assembling a mobile to hang above their infant's crib, and locating a country butcher who can cater to his farm-to-table culinary preferences, there is still the nagging problem of their new home's infernally noisy pipes. Clanking with rusty symbolism, those pipes can make quite a racket. As Mike (David Sinaiko), the recently widowed local plumber explains, those pipes are "sweaty."

Because she is often left at home alone, Becky is relieved when company comes a-knocking, whether it be Mike or her new friend, Jenny (El Beh), the exhausted mother of two little boys whose husband is always traveling abroad on a mission for an NGO.

Jenny (El Beh) visits Becky in a scene from The Village Bike
(Photo by: Pak Han)

Despite John's reticence about his wife buying a used bicycle without his being there to render his manly approval, Becky has answered an ad in the local paper and set up a meeting with the seller. Oliver (Kevin Clarke) is a local actor whose wife, Alice (Megan Trout), is often away on extended business trips. With John and Alice frequently out of town, it doesn't take much for Becky's surging hormones to spark her curiosity about Oliver, the village Lothario-in-waiting who well understands "the carnal coming together of consenting adults."

Elissa Beth Stebbins and Kevin Clarke in a scene
from The Village Bike (Photo by: Pak Han)

As might be expected, one thing leads to another. Soon Becky and Oliver are enjoying frequent no-strings-attached sexcapades in the afternoon. Whether the painfully shy schoolteacher dresses up as a naughty schoolgirl or lets Oliver talk dirty and order her around, Becky is finally getting some adventure back in her otherwise drab life. One night, Oliver sneaks into her kitchen wearing a ski mask, pretending to be a burglar. While John sits upstairs reading and politely waiting for his wife to bring him some tea, Oliver is throwing a quick fuck into Becky as she leans over the kitchen table. On another occasion, he arranges a threeway with the Polish woman who used to be Jenny's maid.

Fucking without feelings may be old hat to Oliver, but it's new for Becky, who doesn't want it to stop but can't control her emotions. When Alice returns from a long trip and Becky feels the need for a quick connection with Oliver, her poor timing sparks a confrontation which causes their friendship to rapidly disintegrate. As director Patrick Dooley explains:
"Directing The Village Bike is my way of figuring out why it's eluded all my attempts to shake it out. As far as I can tell, it's about our fundamental need for raw, honest intimacy and the fear that usually comes with intimacy. But it's also about our innate desire for sexual fulfillment (not just the tender, sweet, making love kind of fulfillment, but also the primal, unabashed, snake brain kind of fulfillment). This play prompts us to ask ourselves difficult questions. For example:
  • How important is a vibrant sex life to your idea of a complete and joyful life?
  • Have you ever watched porn for more than an hour? To masturbate? While having sex? Were you ashamed?
  • If you are a mother, did you ever notice a shift in the sexual attention you received once people knew you were pregnant? How did that feel?
  • Whose red hot libido makes you most uncomfortable? An 18-year-old woman, a 60-year-old woman, or a 30-year-old pregnant woman?
  • Would you be sympathetic to a friend having an affair if you knew they had been sexually rejected by their partner?
  • Are you able to ask any of these questions to the person next to you?"
Becky (Elissa Beth Stebbins) and Oliver (Kevin Clarke) enjoy an
afternoon tryst in a scene from The Village Bike (Photo by: Pak Han)

The odd thing about Skinner's play is how easily its characters fall into clearly-defined categories. On one hand, Becky and Oliver are acutely aware of their sexual needs, erotic desires, and are willing to take the necessary risks to satisfy their carnal urges. On the other hand, John and Jenny are well-intentioned spouses who are either totally clueless about their mates or so distracted by their personal and professional obligations that they've lost interest in their own bodies. On the periphery is one lonely and very confused widower, a plumber who was tasked with fixing some sweaty pipes and unexpectedly "got lucky."

Because Skinner's script is filled with lots of clumsy hints and double entendres, the level of buy-in from the audience is crucial to any performance's success. At the matinee I attended, the audience was quite on top of the situation, sympathetic to Becky's risk-taking, titillated by Oliver's tricks, and saddened by John's obvious insensitivity to his wife. Special kudos to Hannah Birch-Carl, who designed some spectacular sound effects for an obstreperously bilious system of pipes.

Kevin Clarke (Oliver) and Elissa Beth Stebbins (Becky)
in a scene from The Village Bike (Photo by: Pak Han) 

While the bulk of the play rests on the shoulders of Elissa Beth Stebbins as Becky, her dramatic strength was easily overshadowed by El Beh's chattering Jenny and Kevin Clarke's lascivious portrayal of Oliver. Nick Medina was appropriately nerdy as John while David Sinaiko had some touching moments of confused comedy as Mike. Megan Trout made a brief appearance as Alice, Oliver's clueless wife. Here's the trailer:

Performances of The Village Bike continue through June 26 at the Shotgun Players (click here for tickets).

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