The show: "Riding the Turnpike" at Hartford's HartBeat Ensemble
First impressions: HartBeat Ensemble premieres a new work at its new home: a fine, intimate fit in the 80-seat theater that previously housed Hartford Children's Theatre. But this work is not for kids. "Riding the Turnpike" is an ambitious and adult project: the sex trade on the Berlin Turnpike in Connecticut.
Though it is well-staged and played, the story line is tired though true. (The show is based on interviews with some of the workers along the infamous highway and Raymond Bechard's book "The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America.") But it's not exactly a shock that the sex industry has some pretty icky characters, settings and situations.
This collaborative effort zips along in a series of short episodes, interspersed with simulated sex scenes. But there's something missing, something empty, something unexplored in this theatrical quickie. We never get to know the characters beyond a stereotype or a very sketchy outline. There are some intriguing issues suggested (the change in the business toward internet porn; the nature of the dependency of the women; the dynamics of sex enslavement) but the operative word here is "suggested."
What's it about?: The play, co-written by Hartbeat ensemble members Cindy Martinez and Debra Walsh, opens (after an extended simul-sex scene) with the audience learning that there's major legal troubles for Magic (Herb Newsome), the owner of the Trance Six, a day-and-nightclub on the pike. He needs to raise bail money fast and pushes his quartet of women to re-double their sex-for-pay activities. He also places the strip club's ownership in the name of one of the women, Rose (Michelle Mount) who feels closest to Magic, but who will inevitably take the fall for him.
Sounds naive. Hasn't she seen movies about pimps and prostitutes?: Yes, but it's intriguing to see why Rose, along with all the women, show such a deep dependency to Magic. In Rose's case, there are elements of the lure of the submissive. Caz (Taneisha Duggan) an African-American woman, seems to be the sharpest sex worker and is trying to set up business for herself, but needs a special partnership with Magic until that can happen.
Helen (Cindy Martinez) is a Latina held captive by her need for the drugs that Magic parcels in doses just enough to keep her in tow and reasonably functional. Andy (Caitlin McInerney) is a newbie to the business. She is an ex-druggie, struggling to stay clean, and wants Magic to get her a lawyer in order to regain custody of her child.
Can't she do it on her own? That's a good question. And there are many others that are raised but not answered in the piece that could benefit from spending less time on the sexual simulations and projections (though exceptionally well done), and more on character development and dramatization.
When there finally is an extended scene — the four women talking and laughing about their "John" experiences — it's like a breath of fresh air where we learn at least a little more about the women and their relationship to each other.
The script also lacks narrative clarity: an understanding of what the law in the state really is; the fate of several of the women; the meaning and ramifications of the ending.
The staging, by Steven Raider-Ginsburg is brisk and infuses much humanity into some of the characters. But in the case of the manipulative Magic, there may be too much unearned softness that belies the menace and charisma that acts as a hold over the women. You know something isn't quite in balance in the story telling when the character with the most interesting dramatic arc is Rayne, the conflicted gofer who sweeps up at the club, played by Bryan Swormstedt with just the right jittery seediness.
Who will like it?: Those who admire theaters that tackle important sociological issues.
Who won't?: Those who want more depth, revelations, surprises in the exploration of those sociological issues.
For the kids?: Hardly. There's no nudity but the sexual re-enactments are graphic.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less?: No exit for sex workers on the Berlin Turnpike, but no point of view either.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: In shows that are exhaustively researched and developed over a long period of time (there have been two staged readings of this work), there's a tendency to chronicle rather than fully dramatize with a strong, singular perspective. If the goal here is to coolly "tell the story," perhaps a series of monologues would have been a better way to go. If a real play is a goal, it's just going through the motions.
The basics: The show plays at the Carriage House Theater, 360 Farmington Ave., Hartford. The run continues through May 18 with performances Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Running time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $10 to $15. Information: 860-548-9144 and www.hartbeatensemble.org.
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Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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