A scruffy homeless bloke in a green army jacket steps out of the shadows and lights a cigarette, illuminating a broken sign that reads, simply, “Road.” He speaks in the peculiar dialect of the coal mining towns of Northern England, and when he talks, he addresses the audience directly.
“This is our road! But tonight it’s your road an’ all! Don’t feel awkward wi’ us, make yourselves at home.” It’s the opening of a gritty play about a town full of unemployed Brits struggling to fill empty days with meaning. They drink, they fight, they embrace, and in this production by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in Santa Ana, they do their best to drag the audience into the action.
Those who sit in the front row will be stared down by an angry skinhead, offered a sip from a bottle in a bag, asked for a light and goaded into dancing by Bisto, the world’s rudest DJ, who gets up close and personal before screaming, “Dance, dance! You’ll get used to me! You better!”
“You might be a little uncomfortable when they talk to you,” said Shari Nomady of Mission Viejo at intermission. She stood in the lobby, which had been converted into a pub. An actor improvised a noisy scene as a drunken karaoke singer as she talked.
“But they make you want to be involved. They don’t just look at you; if they catch you looking back, they definitely keep eye contact. It’s a certain intensity you just don’t get at South Coast Repertory,” she said.
Rude Guerrilla is a different cup of tea from its counterpart in Costa Mesa. The storefront theater specializes in edgy fare by contemporary British playwrights such as Jim Cartwright, author of “Road,” and plays by younger writers from the in-yer-face theater movement, a group that tackles social issues head-on.
Shows such as Mark Ravenhill’s “Shopping and ... ,” with its explicit sex scenes, and Sara Kane’s “Cleansed,” a story of homosexuals, mental patients, junkies and prostitutes set in a university turned concentration camp, draw small but loyal audiences to the 40-seat theater.
“I come once a month,” said Joseph Larm of Santa Ana. “I like their shows. They’re artsy.” And what about when the actors get in his face like they did Saturday? “I’m used to it,” he said.
Director Renee Gallo rehearsed to build in opportunities for interaction but told her actors to carry on if the audience didn’t play along. “They’re frequently spoken to and encouraged to react a little,” she said. “The way the playwright has written this story, you’re not watching it wondering what’s going to happen next. It’s a series of character studies; you have to engage the audience for it to affect them more.”
Even the structure of the show challenges theater-goers. Traditionally the pace picks up toward the end of a play. In “Road,” a series of short scenes make up the first act as the audience gets to know characters getting ready for a night on the town. In the second act, the rhythm slows down as the townies head home.
The show is a challenge for the actors too. With the exception of the narrator, each player portrays three to five characters. There’s plenty of time to get to know the cast as they come into close contact with the audience in the 20-by-40-foot black box space.
“Yes, it’s intrusive,” said Stephanie Gilbert of Huntington Beach at the end of intermission. “And we’re kind of shy and don’t want to be talked to.” Still, she came back for the second act. She and her husband had been to a performance of Ravenhill’s “Some Explicit Polaroids” at Rude Guerrilla and they like intimate theater. They also enjoy seeing shows set in England. This one takes place in their backyard; she’s from Leicestershire and he’s from Manchester.
A tale of Thatcher-era England, “Road” is aging. But the emotions are timeless, said Rude Guerrilla artistic director Dave Barton. “Here you are with people on the edge, drinking to forget,” Barton said. “But the writing has humor and the characters are so vivid that the next time you pass someone on the street begging for a dollar you might look at them a little differently and realize you’re not that far away from there yourself.”
The characters burn themselves into your memory because they’ve done all but sit in your lap, said one theater-goer who danced with cast members at intermission.
“Sure, it’s uncomfortable, but I enjoy it,” said Mark Sigler a real estate salesman from Newport Beach. “It’s like a stranger talking to you. That kind of conversation can sometimes be very rewarding.”
What: “Road,” presented by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Continues through June 8. Schedule: Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. There will be one Thursday performance June 5 at 8 p.m. $15. (714) 547-4688.
Dialect: British English with a heavy Scottish influence. Cast members frequently say “reet” for “right,” “whome” for “home,” “summat” for “something,” “owt” for “anything” and “nowt” for nothing.
British vocabulary: snog (passionate kiss), knacked (exhausted), tab (cigarette), Giro (unemployment check), butty (sandwich), skrike (cry).