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Bull in a China Shop

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 1, 2017

Enid Graham and Ruibo Qian
Photo by Jenny Anderson

Is it written somewhere that we can only learn from the past by filtering it through the present? In theory, it ought to be possible to tell a story of relevance to today while fully embracing the luxuries and limitations that yesterday had to offer. That's exactly the style that Bull in a China Shop, the new play by Bryna Turner that just opened at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center Theater in an LCT3 production, needs, but doesn't receive.

The tale it tells certainly could have been ripped from today's headlines. Mary Woolley (Enid Graham), a spirited progressive reformer, assumes the presidency of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and sets about remaking the women's school in her own image. She does away with the traditional classes she believes are designed to keep women dumb and docile, institutes new ones that will put them more on equal footing with men, and hires an army of new women instructors to make it all happen. She encounters some resistance from oldsters on the staff, the board, and the donor roster, but plows ahead positive that her course is the right one. And she does this all with her life partner, and new Mount Holyoke teacher, Jeannette Marks (Ruibo Qian) more or less always by her side.

Obstacles, internal and external, abound around the two women: they need to work, they need some money and cooperation from others, and they still need to maintain some semblance of privacy, since their relationship is not yet accepted—and is barely tolerated—by the conservative throngs in which they move. And while they're investigating this on the macro level, Turner and her director, Lee Sunday Evans, do sketch the outlines of a fascinating and important bit of pre-suffrage history that's well worth remembering today.

Whenever they drill down, though, Bull in a China Shop strains to find and maintain its footing. Because Turner has modernized the dialogue and attitudes that drive the action, we get no sense of the passage of time and evolution of thought across the last hundred years, which makes Woolley's and Marks's accomplishments seem far less special than they actually were. It's difficult not to be drawn out of the play when the sedate powder room set (by Arnulfo Maldonado) and costumes (Oana Botez) at least wink at the period, but the F-word carpet-bombs the dialogue every chance it gets and there's no elevated feel to the dialogue or the acting. We can't experience what they're rebelling against, so we can't experience how well it does (or doesn't) work.

For their parts, Graham and Qian are troupers, trying to make flesh-and-blood figures from lines and situations aren't much interested in such things. Graham comes closer to succeeding by distancing her portrayal from Turner's artificial reality just enough that she appears at vague odds with it, in much the way the real Woolley might have been. Qian fully gives in to the conceit, which doesn't help but provides an air of consistency to her portrayal that sets her apart. The other actresses, who include Michele Selene Ang as a student with a unique bond with Marks, Crystal Lucas-Perry as a teacher with her own perspective on Mount Holyoke's changes, and Lizbeth Mackay as the stodgy, disapproving dean, keep switching between performance styles to find one that works, but none ever does.

It's not even entirely clear any is supposed to. In a note at the start of the script, Turner writes that "this is an excavating of queer history" and "also a queering of history," which "entails making room for the people who have been routinely denied a place in the narrative." If Woolley and Marks have earned that place, Turner doesn't so much give it to them as she does forsake them in favor of fantasy versions of them that wage today's wars instead of their own. But aren't their wars what we need to see to understand where we are now, and how far we have yet to go?

"This is a startlingly contemporary play," Turner concludes, but it registers more as a tired attempt to remake the past than to present it in a way that's useful to us now. There's nothing startling about women today standing up for themselves and their rights—that's been a constant since Donald Trump was elected president (and well before). But the trailblazers who didn't have the advantages we enjoy today but nonetheless took the chances and paid the price? Their story doesn't need to be "queered" to be shattering, which is one thing that Bull in a China Shop all too seldom is.

Bull in a China Shop
Through March 26
Lincoln Center Theater - Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge