Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—Bryna Turner’s “Bull in a China Shop”

Bull in a China Shop
Written by Bryna Turner; directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Performances through April 2, 2017
Claire Tow Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Enid Graham and Ruibo Qian in Bull in a China Shop (photo: Jenny Anderson)

The story of Mary Woolley is a fascinating one: she became president of Massachusetts’ Holyoke College in 1901 while living openly with her longtime companion, Professor Jeanette Marks, and finally retired in 1937 after leading the charge for raised standards for women’s education. Too bad, then, that Bryna Turner’s play about Woolley, Bull in a China Shop, rarely burrows to the heart of her relationship with Marks and merely pays lip service to her stature as an advocate for women’s rights.

Turner’s play compresses four decades of Woolley’s life on the Holyoke campus into 85 minutes, but the lack of motivation and character development is a fatal flaw: populated by dramatically insufficient scenes, it’s surprising that the play is, as it says in the program, “inspired by real letters” between the women. Also, I’d be surprised if those letters between these two intelligent, spirited women contained the surfeit of “f” words that is liberally sprinkled throughout Bull’s dialogue, especially one particular epithet beginning with “motherf—.” It’s not that such words weren’t used a century ago, but in this context—spoken by highly educated women in a place of higher learning—they seem willfully out of place, distracting from the drama whenever they’re dropped in.

Lee Sunday Evans directs with insufficient variety, and with Arnulfo Maldonado’s mostly bare set and Eric Southern’s conventional lighting, the effect is of an inadvertent distancing, underlined further by the acting of Enid Graham, whose Woolley is shrill and overbearing. As Marks, Ruibo Qian is nearer the mark, providing needed shading, especially in the humorous (and later, tender) scenes with Pearl (Michele Selene Ang), a student with whom Marks has an affair.

Instead of a sensitive study of a worthy historical character, Turner’s unsubtle play ends up aping its own title with its awkward bluntness.

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