Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Bull in a China Shop" ☼ ☼

For a show with a title like this one, surprisingly little gets broken. A historical fiction based on the professional life of Mary Wooley, the first female student at Holyoke College who became its Eleventh President in 1901, we get little historical information except the bare outlines. Attitudes began to change at that time, but we see very little of that on stage.

What we spend our time observing is the relationship between Wooley (Stacey Ross) and her ex-student and long-term partner Jeanette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Author Bryna Turner wants us to understand how difficult a relationship like this one must have been, but if these two are burning there is not much fire. Ross's Wooley is detached from Marks except when the younger woman protests loudly enough to be heard, and Marks seems perfectly willing to be the kept woman on the University payroll.

Jasmine Milan Williams's Pearl is another story. Pearl is in love with Jeanette Marks.

Played with a ton of flair, Pearl has all the heart we wish we saw in either of the two leads, who don't appear to even like each other very much. So Pearl's soliloquy about love and its effects stands out. It is the show's highlight moment.

Mia Tagano is very good as the voice of the school establishment, caught between the male regents and her own desire to modernize women's education. Rebecca Scweitzer has a limited role as a housemate of Jeanette Marks in later days.

For us, one of the show's problems is that four decades pass but the women don't really age or change. And the f-bombs. In 1901? Really? Well, maybe.

In the end the story becomes one of power. If Mary Wooley’s role were played by a man, it would not surprise us, but neither would there be a statement to be made. We wish we were sure what that statement is.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives “Bull in a China Shop” Two Stars. If the history of gender issues are important to you, you will want to watch Stacey Ross and this cast re-enact the early 20th Century. But don't expect fireworks. Or a china shop. Or a bull.

“Bull in a China Shop"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Dec. 8

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