Review by Kathleen Campion
March 2, 2017
The “bull” in the title is Mary Woolley (Enid Graham), the newly appointed president of Holyoke Seminary for Women. She strides whenever she walks and strikes a wide stance when she stops. It is 1899, and she has come to the seminary to disrupt what passes for women’s education in this pre-suffrage era. She indeed confronts a “china shop” of stodgy, traditional thinking, a syllabus rife with doilied courses on homemaking and side-saddled equestrian studies. The place is designed to turn out polished wives. Woolley is there to upend that agenda and begin to teach women to challenge everything.
She has brought her former student — now her younger lover — Jeanette Marks (Ruibo Qian) with her and installed her as a teacher. Marks, too, is a disrupter, popular with the students, disdained by the faculty. Qian steps to the lip of the stage and shows us the provocative teacher the girls warm to. At home she is the demanding partner, the petulant lover who fears losing love. She is the junior partner. Qian grows her cheeky brat into a confident woman in short order.
The script is based on genuine letters between Woolley and Marks that tell their personal story of partings and doubts, the inevitable you-don’t-see-me, you-are-the-selfish-one exchanges. What’s more, the letters, written as they were by educated women of their time, also sketch an historical backdrop of the new century, the suffrage struggle, and the upheaval of WWI.
Their exchanges about love and commitment, about courage and challenge, are constant if a tad pedantic. You never doubt that they are engaged in a decades-long love affair. (Oddly, although there is lots of kissing and gentle stroking in and out of dainty Victorian underwear, there is no heat between them. The passion is confined to ideas.)
There are two riveting speeches in Bull in a China Shop. They come late in the 90-minute production — the first is capriciously funny; the second brought me to tears.
Pearl (Michele Selene Ang) a student with an enduring crush on her teacher, Jeanette Marks, eventually becomes her lover as well. After Marks dismisses their sexual encounter as an effort to broaden the young woman’s life experience, Pearl takes the stage throwing rocks at Marks window. She launches into a soliloquy of love and hate, retribution and destruction, consumption, consumation, and retribution again. If you have ever loved and lost, especially in your tender years, you will recognize that playwright Bryna Turner, and Ang deliver exactly what you felt. With the distance of years, it is a giddy visit to our adorable, vulnerable selves.
But when Woolley — the estimable Enid Graham — takes her turn, she doesn’t touch your heart but stops it. She’s returned crestfallen from an international peace-making mission to Herr Hitler. She recounts first, her delight at having been chosen to attend, and, then, her humiliation, at having been “seated with the wives.” Ultimately, in a nuanced telling of the tale as an allegory for her life as “bull,” she wonders: "...how is it possible for one person to be so at odds with every room they’re in?"
Happily, we are in a world of women. The five women on stage, Graham, Qian, Ang, of course, and Lizbeth Mackay as the dean, who puts in a layered performance, as she walks the line between convention and disruption. Then there is Crystal Lucas-Perry as Felicity, a philosophy professor, who brings a lightness to the production, comic relief in the best sense.
Bryna Turner is the playwright making her professional debut while Lee Sunday Evans directs.
The set — at the spare 112-seat Claire Tow Theater built atop the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center — is spare as well. Most of the action paces across a slightly raised platform, the actors stepping off at all the edges. Occasional undress clutters and softens some of the edges, but most of the action is walking and talking and striking positions. Oddly, with so little visual variety throughout, there is one single scene set in the back behind a colored scrim that is quite lovely — one wonders why did we not get more of that space and nuance?
There are moments of incongruity in the time-space-continuum — I doubt the women of the time, however thwarted, launched F-bombs as these characters do. The “bull” in the title has it’s unsavory side as well, and I don’t think it is period-true. But, these are quibbles. The point is, this is a drama of women fiercely engaged in establishing personhood for their gender; women who insist teaching women to be whole not only matters, it is the only thing that matters.
While not a perfect play, it has several remarkable performances, two searing soliloquies, some true dialogue (like the intimate repartee in bed as the younger woman quizzes her partner about old loves and the awful commitment of love.) Add to that, there are happy pairings of the President and the Dean, of the teacher and the student, and again of a teacher and a student.
This play is not for everyone. But, if you are up for “an odd little evening” with a piquant take on just how complicated it was — as recently as this — to suggest women might be whole humans — go.