Arts and Entertainment Urbanite Gives Powerful Opening with Chicken Shop

Dennis Maley

SARASOTA — From the moment I heard about the downtown Sarasota theater concept being planned by a couple of FSU/Asolo Conservatory grads, I was excited by its potential. On Friday night, Urbanite Theatre opened its doors with the U.S. debut of Anna Jordan's Chicken Shop. I left with little doubt that Urbanite is the best thing to happen to the local theater scene in years.

Joseph Flynn and Lauren Wood

photo by Cliff Roles

Chicken Shop is a provocative coming of age story about a teenage boy's struggle with his transition to manhood, while under the roof of his unintentionally-oppressive lesbian mother and her much younger live-in girlfriend.

Hendrix is bullied by kids at his public high school in Brooklyn who have found out his mom is gay after one of them spots her making out with the girlfriend, Katie, in an IKEA parking lot. After the teasing escalates to a brutal beating and accusations that he is also homosexual, Hendrix seeks to prove his masculinity by losing his virginity to a Hungarian prostitute named Luminita, at a low-rent brothel in a small, shabby bedroom above a chicken shop.

Instead of sex, Hendrix finds something he is lacking much more in his life – someone he can talk to. At home, Hendrix is resentful of his mother, Hilary, who constantly puts her own wants and needs in front of his, including the relationship with Katie, a supposed visual artist who does little beyond drinking wine and offering Hilary physical comforts.

Joseph Flynn and Lucy Lavely. Photo by Cliff Roles

Hendrix’s blossoming sexuality creates considerable tension with the petulant, attractive and always scantily clad Katie, who never misses an opportunity to exploit his vulnerability. Hilary, who, despite a pronounced effort to afford Hendrix tremendous liberty, is so overbearing in imposing her own feminist/naturalist ideologies onto her son, that he struggles to rectify even sexual daydreams without the guilt her preaching has inadvertently stamped upon them.

In Luminita, he finds someone so shell-shocked by the misogynistic abuse of her pimp/boyfriend Leko that she quickly excuses all of Hendrix's troubling concerns. When Hendrix realizes that Luminita is not a prostitute, but a sex slave who has been trafficked to the United States under false pretenses, he hatches a plan to rescue her.

Chicken Shop, which was adapted from a London setting for Urbanite’s production, is a powerful play with tight dialogue that moves the story at a brisk pace. Director Barbara Redmond, who was Head of Acting at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory from 1998 to 2011, had the five-character cast (which included two Conservatory grads and an Asolo Rep vet) in perfect sync on opening night. Her addition of a well selected soundtrack enhances the play’s deliciously gritty feel. Heavy on bands like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and FOAL, the music ensures there is nary a second of lag in the entire play.

Lucy Lavely, who wowed local audiences when she played the lead in the Asolo Rep’s production of Other Desert Cities last season while still a third-year Conservatory student, is over-the-top fabulous as Katie. Fellow Conservatory alum Ashley Scallon gives a superbly poignant performance as the deeply fractured Luminita.

Local favorite Lauren Wood is well cast as Hilary, while Tampa’s Joseph Flynn demonstrates amazing maturity and stage presence for a young actor as Hendrix, the role that is most make-or-break for the play.

Jason Bradley and Ashley Scallon

photo by Cliff Roles

The most memorable performance, however, is given by Chicago-based Asolo-Rep vet Jason Bradley, who plays Leko with a gripping intensity. Bradley, who had a recurring role on the defunct NBC TV series Crisis last season, falls deep into character as a violently chauvinistic and somewhat backward immigrant, frustrated by his own limitations, while trying to slice off a modest piece of what he sees as the American dream. Bradley’s character is brimming with so much potential violence that whenever Leko is onstage, you can cut the tension with a knife.

The opening night performance was incredibly tight, despite it being the company's very first show. Urbanite’s small theater space provides a remarkably intimate experience that compliments the play’s intense nature. In fact, it is nearly impossible to feel like you are not inhabiting the very rooms of Rick Cannon’s vibrant set.

Co-Artistic Directors Brendan Regan and Summer Dawn Wallace have created in Urbanite the perfect compliment to an already rich local theater scene. Rather than crowd the market, their bold selections and progressive approach have the potential to expand its base.

With $20 tickets and a calendar of progressive yet accessible works, it also has the potential to draw a younger crowd (there are also $5 student tickets for this production). This is of particular importance, as theater, like most fine arts, has not been very successful in cultivating the younger generations that will ultimately be needed to replace older audiences. Sarasota/Bradenton productions in particular, are notoriously gray. If there’s anything that could help remedy that imbalance, it’s just the sort of concept that Regan and Wallace have delivered.

Chicken Shop runs through May 3. Visit the Urbanite website for more information.