By Ed Rampell
A Timely Take on Sexuality (Or Lack Thereof)
In yet another era when sexual scandals rock America’s cultural and political power centers, Ruth Fowler’s disturbing drama about sexual politics is receiving its world premiere at Rogue Machine. A psychosexual excursion into the troubled world of a male and female roommate, bled for the household truth features several simulated sex acts, and partial nudity.
In bled, Keith (Benjamin Burdick), a 39 year-old working long hours in the financial sector, posts a Craigslist ad (apparently suggested by an actual posting) desperately seeking a young, attractive woman to share his posh New York apartment in exchange for her “occasionally walking around or hanging out in her underwear.” Keith adds: “I am not looking for anything to develop into a relationship, or to have you start acting like a girlfriend… no sexual contact… involved.”
As Manhattan’s rents are prohibitively overpriced, 21-ish Penelope (or “Pen” as she emphatically prefers to be called) responds to Keith’s listing. An undocumented immigrant from Britain with a distinctive Manchester accent, penniless Pen (Alexandra Hellquist) leaps at the opportunity to live rent free – and, perhaps, at the opportunity of finding some human contact in a foreign land. But nothing so intimate is ever so simple.
From Back Story to Backstage
Fowler’s personal background may be a case study in how dramatists’ transform their own lives into grist for onstage mills. Originally from northern Wales, Fowler won a scholarship to study at Cambridge – which she describes as the UK’s Holy Land for those pursuing the stage – where she earned a Master’s in American and post-colonial literature. Although the 1979-born Fowler calls her Welsh childhood “quite idyllic,” after graduating from her rarefied university she lost her way in London’s theatre world, which she says was dominated by “privileged upper middle class white people… and I felt alienated from it.” Accepted to pursue her studies at Manhattan’s New School and NYU, Fowler couldn’t afford either. She wound up moving to New York anyway where (like Pen) she didn’t have a visa and supported herself through freelance writing and working as a stripper.
Fowler wrote for British film and TV, although nothing was produced until bled. However, her 2008 nonfiction account of being a stripper, No Man’s Land, was published by Penguin and received mixed reviews. “At the time people wanted women to come out and say stripping is empowering, sexy – but I didn’t find it to be empowering at all… I found it very dark… very nasty. I got roofied,” says Fowler.
Moving to L.A., Fowler “lived in a tiny room near Abbot Kinney in Venice… I was dating a complete asshole who had all these issues.” She reconnected online with “an old college friend who had had phenomenal success as a writer.” Fowler found her former classmate’s insistence that they communicate solely online but never in person to be off-putting, likening it to strip clubs’ “look but don’t touch” rules.
Nevertheless, this scribe (whom the playwright chose not to identify) suggested that she write bled. Fowler derived the play’s title from the poem “Landfall, Grenada” – written by the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Derek Walcott of Saint Lucia – which conveyed a sense of “isolation” to her. Written in 2010, Fowler was unable to get the play produced until Kentucky-born director Cameron Watson read it and brought the searing drama to the attention of Rogue Machine Theatre, where it was accepted within two hours.
Rogue Machine has a reputation for being one of Los Angeles’ edgiest theater companies. In 2014 Watson also directed the Olivier Award-winning Cock, another hard hitting play about sex by a British bard, Mike Bartlett, who was born around the same time as Fowler. Hellquist is likewise no newcomer to the theatre company, having previously acted in Rogue’s Still Life.
Although penned seven years ago, bled opened amidst allegations of men in high places doing low things to women plus under-aged girls and boys. bled not only includes what’ is essentially a rape, but a scene wherein Keith places his hands above the scantily clad sleeping Pen’s breasts that is startlingly reminiscent of the photo of Al Franken’s hands near or on (it’s hard to tell from the picture) the breasts of a sleeping L.A. radio host wearing a Kevlar vest in a warplane during a USO tour. Hellquist says the cast became increasingly aware of bled’s heightened relevancy during the rehearsal process, as almost daily allegations of improprieties shook the power centers of politics, Hollywood, and the news media.
Alexandra Hellquist: Bringing Life to Penelope
In her playbill bio Hellquist described herself as “an international, multi-ethnic mutt,” and elaborating in a phone interview identified herself as having Filipina, Chinese, and Swedish ancestry who lived in Japan, Britain, Australia, France, Italy and America and speaks French, Italian, and English (without the Mancunian accent). The Philippines-born Eurasian actress declined to state her age but intimated that like her Brit character, she lived in the USA without the legally required immigration papers until marrying a Yank. (Fowler adds she has a green card now.) Unlike the unfulfilled Pen, Hellquist said her marriage was full of intimacy and passion, and candidly expressed regret that it didn’t last.
Perhaps Hellquist brings a sensibility of yearning to Pen. Arguably bled’s protagonist, Hellquist insists that her character grows, evolving beyond Act I’s shallow, happy-go-lucky persona into a young woman, discontent with her unhappy interactions with both Keith and the handsome, self-centered, twenty-something Billy (Nathaniel Meek), longing for the a real connection and healthy intimacy.
Both Fowler and Hellquist declined to comment on Pen’s fate, preferring to leave that ambiguous. The actress insists, “talkbacks are crucial to this play. bled has compassion for its characters. There are no villains.” On the other hand, Hellquist adds that during Fowler’s two act excursion into alienation, “No passes are given. A bad childhood does not give you a pass to do fucked up shit.” Given this drama’s denouement, it may be safe to say that bled is a story about roommates wherein there’s no room for mates.
Rogue Machine Theatre’s Bled for the Household Truth plays on Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m., through Dec. 18, 2017, with a post-show reception on Sunday, Dec. 3. Rogue Machine is located at The Met, 1089 N Oxford Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Reservations: (855)585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
TALKBACKS: Sunday December 10: Ruth Fowler (playwright) and cast members.
Monday, December 11: Ruth Fowler and cast members.
Monday, December 18: Cameron Watson (director), Ruth Fowler, and cast members.
Read the review in Stage Raw.