On track

Jun 10, 2009 at 12:00 am

Filth, depravity and addiction make for a fun date night, as readily proven by the Ringwald's infectious new production — a play adapted from the novel, made famous as a film. Trainspotting is caught in a loop of weird nostalgia — set in the '80s but trapped forever in our minds as the shining totem of '90s heroin chic. 

Irvine Welsh's tales of squalor, gloom and emotional devastation in Edinburgh are as shocking as ever, made even more immediate by a staging that practically rubs the viewer's noses in the grime. Already an intimate setting, Ringwald's cramped layout puts some of the action on a dingy mattress in front of the stage, forcing visitors in the front row to watch their toes for fear of an actor tripping and landing in their laps. It's an appropriate venue for such emotionally naked storytelling, with intense performances lending truth and wit to accounts of agony and ecstasy. These are, after all, the tattered lives of those on the fringe of society. 

Western Michigan alumnus Matthew Turner Shelton makes his metro Detroit debut as Mark Renton, the play's narrator and most clearheaded voice. Renton's a funny, cynical charmer who's deeply antisocial and thoroughly conflicted. Shelton starts the show in his skivvies, recounting a lovely story of waking up in a "pile of my own mess." But soon he's in a grungy pair of jeans, slipped comfortably into a fleeting soul with sunken eyes and ashen skin. Renton is too smart for this shit and, unlike everyone around him, seems capable of finding a better path — a career, a family, middle-class comforts — but instead he "chose something else." 

Something else is a hefty smack habit, petty crime to fuel it along, and a motley network of "friends" and associates kicking around the druggie gutter. These include sketchy dealer "Mother Superior" (Josh Campos) and the tweaked-out "Sick Boy" (Alex D. Hill), who's busy dreaming up scams between throwing tantrums. Even more dangerous is Francis Begbie (Sean McGettigan), a violent, misogynist football hooligan; he's a total psycho who despises junkies, but has been grafted to Renton's side since grade school. There's also tough-gal Alison, and the easygoing, tragic Tommy, who's not cut out for the needle and its attendant danger. 

The movie had a consistent, mostly linear plot, but the play is much more anecdotal and theatrical, built around a frame of confessional monologues and brief set pieces. The real grabber involves Mark fishing around in a completely foul toilet bowl hunting for a pair of baseball-sized suppositories he's accidentally deposited. And yep, it's every bit as disgusting a moment in person as it was on film. 

Fans of the film and novel will only vaguely recognize the piece, as Harry Gibson's adaptation compresses and omits varying storylines and characters, dumping the endearingly pathetic Spud, and 86es the botched drug deal conclusion. These are mostly necessary shortcuts for the stage, though it's not clear if the reuse of actors in minor roles is in the script or simply budget-tightening prudence. Whatever the motive, it's a mistake. 

But it's not all gloom and doom. The show's loaded with lots of organic laugh lines, and even a few mildly surreal bits like a Beatles sing-along, and a big white bunny. 

The cast does a mostly credible job rolling their R's and not choking on the glottal thickets of authentic Edinburgh accents. The program should come with a glossary of colorful Scottish slang, like "Gadge" and "Skag" and "Tatties." Other language is blunt but easier to follow. And prepare to hear the word cunt used as a noun, an adjective and a verb. 

Shelton is the standout; he nimbly handles the roughest dialogue with understated sensitivity missing in a few of the supporting players, who are prone to bellowing their way through problems. Vet Melissa Beckwith still emotes a bit much, but regular visitors will appreciate her impressive range, having appeared in everything from Deathtrap to Debbie Does Dallas. McGettigan subtly rounds off some of Begbie's insane edge, lending balance to a performance that could have otherwise easily been overblown. 

This is tough, unforgiving material, but it's right in line with the theater's commitment to edgy, transgressive fare. Trainspotting skates just on the edge of making heroin abuse seem campy; there's something oddly fascinating about literary junkies, they seem to speak to everyone's inner shadows, allowing us to wallow, if only briefly, in self-indulgent misery. And somehow we come away feeling better about ourselves. Trainspotting gives us a compelling chance to dance in the darkness, without getting dirty, though folks in the front row may want to duck.

Corey Hall’s commitment to transgression is admirable. Send comments to [email protected]