Irving — It has been 20 years since Danny Boyle’s film of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting hit cinemas, and I still remember seeing it with fellow twentysomething friends at the Inwood Theatre—the only art house in Dallas at the time—and squeamishly watching its graphic depictions of shooting up/ingesting/snorting drugs and much more disturbing imagery. Still, I was unable to divert my eyes from the filmmaking and storytelling—not to mention my first introduction to Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller. (The movie The Pillow Book came out soon after, which delivered another dose of McGregor magic.)
Trainspotting is still vividly squirm-inducing.
So consider it a compliment to call L.I.P. Service’s production of Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation of Trainspotting hard to watch in the same way. Director Ryan Matthieu Smith and this ensemble have done their jobs if you wriggle uncomfortably in your seat, fight the urge to vomit and view parts of it through your fingers—and still want to see it again.
Jason Levya’s L.I.P. Service is in its fifth season in North Texas (the company’s roots go back further, in Oklahoma). This year is the group’s most ambitious season, using a variety of spaces all over North Texas. They’ve done shows before in the Rudy Seppy Rehearsal Studio, and the space—the rehearsal and prop/costume storage space for Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas—has been used for small productions by other groups. But I’ve never seen it taken over as effectively as done here.
The immersive experience begins upon entering the space from the parking lot in a ramshackle Irving strip mall, as entering a nightclub where the objective is to get plastered, and who-knows-what happens in the bathrooms and dark corners. A sign on the door warns "this establishment uses fog, strobe lights and promotes the use of profanity, nudity and a fuckin' good time!"
There are trash-taking bouncers, conversations, arguments and make-out sessions happening all around. It’s smoky, and the soundtrack is mid-to-late ’80s college rock—it had me with The Cure’s “A Strange Day.” We also get Grace Jones, David Bowie and New Order. Most of the audience is seated at tables (waitresses serve drinks), others are along the bar, and a few (un)lucky patrons sit on the opposite side from the audience, between a living area and kitchen in the flats of various characters.
The balcony and stairs to it are used by the actors, with a band—many of them playing named characters in the play—that features music director/pianist Cherish Robinson, guitarist/vocalist Kennedy Brooke Styron, bassist Conner Wedgeworth, drummer Caleb J. Pieterse and minstrel JL Sunshine. Kicking off the show is entertainer Johnny “Mother Superior” Swan (a fabulous Jason Robert Villarreal, in freaky-deaky-nun drag). Later in the 100-minute, intermissionless show, he does a killer version of the Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man.”
The whole thing is appropriately seedy and underground, with sets by Leyva (using furniture, a pool table, appliances), grungy costumes by director Smith, and evocative lighting by Branson White.
The chapters in Welsh’s book tell the story, focusing on different characters, who are all a bunch of aimless twentysomethings enamored of any drug they can find, avoiding reality by staying junked-up.
Mark (Dustin Simington) is the focus, and he might have a chance to escape, but he’s having too much fun despite all the horrifying and frankly gross doings in his world. He won’t improve himself by hanging with Tommy (Conner Wedgeworth), Franco (Caleb J. Pieterse), Simon “Sick Boy” (Lauren Mishoe, in a terrific casting choice), Alison (Erika Larson) or Lizzie (Jad Brennon Saxton, who plays multiple roles).
There’s no plot, just voyeuristic peepholes into the downward-spiraling lives of ne’er-do-wells and others trapped by being in their presence. Still, it’s hard not to be captivated by so little forward movement. It’s an unsanitary cautionary tale that you’re glad you never had to learn the hard way. Simington is fantastic as he sinks further into despair, and the ensemble is right there with him. Not a weak performance in this bunch, which is a step up for L.I.P. Service, which has often staged commendable productions that don’t reach full potential because the skills of some actors illuminate the deficiencies of others.
Best of all is the film work by Benjamin Lutz and Dillon White, created for this production. It’s smartly used to augment the live action, and the famous, grosser-than-gross toilet scene is just as queasy as in the movie. (BTW, a sequel comes out in 2017.)
Trainspotting will likely have viewers leaving thinking they’ve seen something either utterly disgusting and worthless, or wonderful, harrowing and brash. Count me in the latter railroad car.