(l to r) Emjoy Gavino and Kelli Simpkins in About Face Theatre’s ‘Bull in a China Shop.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
About Face Theatre’s Midwest premiere of Bull in a China Shop, a comedy from playwright Bryna Turner, has but one vivid flaw. It’s so darned delightful, it will leave audiences wanting more than its brief, 80-minute running time.
Featuring crackling, witty dialogue, sparkling performances and a whole lot of 2018 sociopolitical relevance, the production is deftly directed by About Face Artistic Associate Keira Fromm. According to press materials, Fromm explains her attraction to Turner’s material like this:
“As a queer female director, I’m always excited by plays with gay narratives… Plays that deal specifically with gay female stories aren’t particularly common.”
Sad but true. Yet as the production seeks to impact our ongoing cultural conversation for the intersectional better, theater lovers will find a universal story in the terrific Bull in a China Shop. Complicated relationship dynamics, the perversely fundamental humor in human suffering, a desire to leave one’s mark on the world – every century, every gender, every person does their own battle.
Bull in a China Shop illuminates the history of real-life academics and lovers Mary Woolley (Kelli Simpkins) and Jeanette Marks (Emjoy Gavino) at an accelerated, yet thoroughly engaging pace. At the turn of the 20th Century and beyond, Woolley the professor and Marks the student go through a series of career and geographical changes, while passionately endeavoring to create a freer and more representative place for women in global society. Tactics and ideology morph in response to current events and individual circumstances, but Wooley and Marks never sacrifice their devotion to one another. The play is a touching, 40-year love story featuring two brilliant academic, feminist minds. A true tonic for the wounds inflicted by toxic male masculinity narratives.
Yet Wooley and Marks are not one-dimensional saints of suffrage. They are complicated and ambitious. They make compromises that are called into public and private question. They are fully and richly human. The tall, stately Simpkins and the diminutive, but powerful Gavino have a gorgeous onstage rapport that communicates the surprising steadfastness of a relationship that began when Marks was but an idolizing teenager.
Wooley is a visionary who takes a long, committed, but wonkishly unsexy view toward mainstreaming feminism. Marks is impatient for the right side of history to take its just place. The actresses vividly re-enact the cerebral clashes and sensual passions that make the Wooley/Marks relationship historically and presently vital.
In addition to the two leads, excellent supporting work is provided by Mary Beth Fisher as Dean Welsh. Serving university President Wooley, Fisher takes what could be Welsh’s stereotypical bureaucratic character and infuses her with empathy and humor. Her work softens the edges of the office drone trope and injects welcome nuance. Aurora Adachi-Winter as Pearl provides a hilarious balance of borderline personality disorder and genuine pathos in her take on the schoolgirl crush. And Adithi Chandrashekar, as Jeannette’s roommate and fellow academic Felicity, has a mighty nice ability to steal comedic scenes with dead-on timing.
The fantastic production is sustained by creative work from technicians such as scenic designer William Boles. The Chicago veteran transforms a small stage into a flexible canvas that serves as a sprawling, pastoral university campus, intimate private residences, and even a river in China. Marvelously done.
Bull in a China Shop, though brief, is an appealing, modern production, as well as a reminder that a rich narrative with compelling characters can transcend time.
Bull in a China Shop
1229 W Belmont, Chicago, IL
Through June 30
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.