BULL IN A CHINA SHOP: Comedy/Drama by Bryna Turner. Directed by Dawn Monique Williams.. Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. (510) 843-4822 or at www.auroratheatre.org. November 8-December 8, 2019
Bull in a China Shop electrifies at Aurora Theatre.
Feminist history meets romance in Bull in a China Shop earning a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night at the intimate Aurora Theatre. Mount Holyoke’s digital archive “on the lives and letters of Mary Wooley and Jeannette Marks” was the nidus for Bryna Turenr’s play. Historical fact is beautifully juxtaposed with the romantic love of the two women spanning from 1899 to 1937. It is a fast paced 85 minute show with over 20 scenes with a five woman cast that earns a solid should see rating.
In the opening scene Mary Woolley’s (Stacy Ross) first words are “Listen, I’m a bull in a china shop.” She is practicing for an interview to be president of Mount Holyoke a woman’s seminary school that teaches its students the art of feminism. In paraphrase she questions, “Your goal is to be training ground for pious women? F—that! [the f---- word is frequently used]. . . “So you’re afraid they won’t find husbands? … If a man is interested in headless women, send him to France.” That opening scene will whet your appetite.
Gender equality was foremost in Mary Wooley’s dedication converting Mount Holyoke to a college where women could earn a highly rounded education. The reliance on religious services and classes involving housekeeping were decreased or eliminated and the older male faculty replaced with younger women. Into this potential maelstrom she brought her young lover Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) to head the English department. They avoided any public display of affection but apparently their “relationship” was known.
The outline transforming Mount Holyoke was drastic and there probably was strong opposition from the board and financial donors. Turner introduces that opposition through the character of Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano) who questions Wooley’s methods in the few scenes written for her. Although Tagano handles the parth competently Ross overpowers her with the “bull in a china shop” dialog.
The relationship between Wooley and Marks includes varying difference of opinion about the treatment of women in general. Marks is a strong supporter of Women’s Suffrage advocating rebellion only to be rebuffed by Wooley suggesting a wait and see attitude. On a personal level the strain between the two is cleverly written in the dialog: “You promised me a castle and you gave me a dorm” because they have yet to live in a house befitting a college president. Woolley: “Drink some water, take your aspirin, and grow up.”
There are many humorous vignettes that brought spontaneous audience laughter. Two other characters inject much of that humor. Felicity (Rebecca Schweitzer) is a Professor of Philosophy and part time roommate of Marks who sort of protects Marks from Wooley. The other is whirlwind student Pearl (Jasmine Milan Williams) the excitable leader of a clandestine gay woman’s society and a physical attraction to Marks. Their sexual encounter is tastefully staged as are all the displays of affection between Marks and Wooley.
Although Bull in a China Shop is brilliant depicting of the changing history of women striving for professional, political and sexual rights it a beautiful story of romance between two strong women with dichotomous personalities who lived together for 40 years.
Stacy Ross and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong’s performances are superlative and their supporting cast earns accolades in their individual roles with special mention of the young Jasmine Milan William award winning acting.
Dawn Monique Williams’ direction and the entire creative cast add greatly to the overall the quality of an evening in the theatre.
Review by Kedar K. Adour, MD
CAST: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Marks; Jasmine Milan Williams as Pearl; Stacy Ross as Woolley; Rebecca Schweitzer as Felicity; Mia Tagano as Dean Welsh.
CREATIVE TEAM: Scenic Designer Nina Ball; Lighting Designer Kurt Landisman; Costume Designer Ulises Alcala; Sound Designer Lana Palmer; Stage Manager Leslie M. Radin; Assistant Stage Manager Celia Fogel