Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks are lost to history now, but in their day, they were pioneers in the field of women's education. Woolley was the first female student at Brown University and later became the 11th president of Mount Holyoke College (1900-37). Marks was a frustrated writer but a beloved teacher and activist. They were also, for 55 years, romantic partners.
This relationship is currently being explored in Bull in a China Shop, Bryna Turner's professional playwriting debut at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater. Bull is the latest in a line of stage works that attempt to explore the past through a distinctly present-day lens. Like Hamilton, the vernacular is almost entirely contemporary and the five-member cast is multicultural, while the physical production is firmly rooted in the historical period during which the piece is set.
Ultimately, the play makes for an intriguing 90 minutes, and it introduces a voice that will no doubt go on to impress even further. But Bull in a China Shop, vibrantly directed by Lee Sunday Evans, is crucially lacking in forward motion and character development. As a result, it never rises above feeling like a piece of fan fiction.
Woolley (Enid Graham) is a self-described "bull in a china shop," a forward-thinking woman in a man's world, whose pioneering belief was that women could do anything, not just domestic or service work. Over the course of her 36-year tenure at Holyoke, she built the university into a premier liberal arts college for women, raising its endowment, adding more than a dozen new buildings, and helping shape the way the college system as a whole looked at women in society.
The play explores Woolley's often-fraught relationship with Marks (Ruibo Qian), her former student-turned-lover whom she installs as an English professor at Holyoke. Their life together was an open secret, unquestioned yet reluctantly accepted by the university — though, in Turner's version of the story, beloved by the progressive student body. One of the students, Pearl (Michele Selene Ang), has a potentially damaging crush on Marks, the cool professor who allows her students to discuss life and literature over cigarettes. But it could also put the brakes on Marks' relationship with Woolley, who, through the years, seems to devote more time to globe-trotting as a women's activist rather than to being a devoted partner.
Turner writes thoroughly exciting dialogue for each of the characters, injecting the inhabitants of this century-old world with a flavor that rings true to our modern ears while costumed in Oana Botez's long, period-specific, velvet skirts and high-necked blouses. Similarly, Arnulfo Maldonado's set is spare and furniture-free, keeping Evans' focus on the dialogue and characters clear and uncluttered.
While its obvious that Turner worships Woolley and Marks, the author has a hard time getting the scenes to build on top of each other. The work remains stagnant rather than developing an arc. None of the characters rise about the surface of the more fascinating ideas Turner wants to explore, such as the psychological ramifications of being in a lesbian relationship at the turn of the last century. It's really unfortunate, since stylistically, Bull in a China Shop is one of the braver and more unusual works to be seen on a major New York stage in a while, and Turner's voice is refreshingly original.
Because of this, it's hard for the actors to emotionally grow from scene to scene. Nevertheless, they still make an impact. As Marks' tortured would-be lover, Ang delivers an excellent monologue late in the play, while Crystal Lucas-Perry finds delightfully comic tones as Felicity, whose function is generally unclear. Lizbeth Mackay adds an air of gravitas as Holyoke's dean of students, a role that could use some more meat on its bones.
As for Graham and Qian, they certainly get the best material; specifically a mid-play flashback set during their first night together that beautifully raises extremely recognizable questions about the nature of relationships. Together, they make a very affecting couple, with a really sexy chemistry. It's believable that everyone "ships" them. But we walk out of Bull in a China Shop yearning for a greater understanding of what made these two powerful, pioneering women tick, and how their societal contributions changed the American educational system as they knew it.
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