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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul  

Pro Rata's Slag Heap is riveting gutter theater

Zoe Benston and Joseph Papke
In England, slag is mining's waste material that has no value. Playwright Anton Dudley wraps three engaging teenagers, living rough on Manchester's chilly streets, in the slag metaphor and tips us deep into their daily lives. His dialogue is gob-smacking good. Spoken in authentic Manchester accents (listen hard to tune your ears), it feels original and dead-on, his characters as real as life. In a compelling production directed by Carin Bratlie, tiny Theatre Pro Rata's young actors deliver such strong performances that I was impatient for the 10-minute interval to end so I could continue with their story.

Dudley opens Slag Heapin the 1980s of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's disastrous Poll Tax and in England's chronically depressed North. Ashley and Dave support each other on the street as they sell their bodies to any taker, their only ambition to do enough "jobs" to eat and, maybe, to sleep in a cheap hotel and take a bath.

Amber Bjork's Ashley is shabby and convincing, a mouthy girl in grubby pants, a dirty jacket and downtrodden sneakers. In the opening scene, she's jealous that Dave has a shag lined up with a bloke in the public loo. She tells him that no one looks at girls any more; "That's the problem with sexual freedom," she concludes. In spite of Ashley's work and dirty mouth, Bjork finds an innocence in Ash.

Both Ash and Dave accept their lots, and Dave even seems to enjoy some of his encounters with johns. In an outstanding performance, Joseph Papke's Dave is an upbeat optimist, sweet and open-natured and yet closed to real feeling. When his aunt is slashed to death, he shrugs and dismisses it. He shares his takings with Ash and splurges on a hilarious pub meal after a well-paid, bi-sexual three-hander with a fat man in a limousine. Dave demonstrates the sexual action in the car to Ash, using a chip (French fry,) a beer bottle for the fat tosser, and a fork for Fran, the other prostitute.

Dave takes himself off to London at Fran's urging, abandoning Ash. He lands in a rave club, gets a free room beneath the club and does porno shots for the boss. Versatile Dave is shagged by men and, just as cheerily, he shags Fran when she pitches up. He believes he's never had it so good and dreams of becoming a club rapper. In a drug fueled-high, Papke's Dave gabs to Fran in inspired acting.

In another powerful performance, Zoe Benston plays quick-tongued Fran. Criticizing a woman Dave has his eye on, Fran says, "She's got a face like a slapped arse." She's more experienced and successful at prostitution than the other two, and she despises Ashley. Dressed in a quarter yard of black leather skirt, Leggy Benston is wonderful in the role. In London, where Fran meets up with Dave, Benston taps Fran's intelligence and need for affection. In Manchester, Fran shares a waterless flat with her druggy sister, Donna. Jennifer Phillips lives lusty layabout Donna, who carelessly seduces the Pakistani curry shop owner's schoolboy son, with devastating consequences.

Bratlie pulls strong performances from her young cast that includes Gabriel Llanas and Amber Rose Smith. By focusing not on the kids' brutal circumstances but on their vivid characters and their emotional cross ties, she plumbs warmth and plenty of dark humor as well as pain in Slag Heap.

Set designer Zach Morgan provides a grunge, torn-poster backdrop of Alex Davis' graffiti-scrawled wall, and Katherine Horowitz's sound effects bring rain, traffic and rave music to the stage. Papke coached his colleagues in the strong Manchester accent and, to my English ear, it sounds right on.

Theatre Pro Rata takes on challenging theater and meets the challenge consistently. Slag Heap is too shagging good to miss. Catch it before it closes April 16.

Slag Heap April 9 16, 2006. Thursday —Saturday 7:30 p.m. Sunday 2:00 p.m. Pro Rata Theatre at the Loading Dock, 509, Sibley Street, St. Paul. Tickets: $14 - $28. Call 651-874-9321.

Photo: Charlie Gorrill

- Elizabeth Weir

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