Directed by Jeffry Stanton
Produced by Interrobang Theatre Project
At Studio Two in the Athenaeum Theatre
Ambitious production about possessions
Interrobang Theatre Project has revived the widely produced and controversial British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1972 play Owners. It’s a bold effort by the four-year-old company, which prides itself on probing philosophical questions.
The story explores the complicated relationship between five people amid the backdrop of the UK’s painful economic transition in the 1970s. Clegg (Matt Castellvi) is the owner of a family butcher shop which has just failed. His wife, Marion (Brynne Barnard), a successful real estate agent, doesn’t care about his loss of income or pride. Humiliated by a wife who is independent and more prosperous than he, Clegg resolves to kill her, with the help of Marion’s self-harming lackey and boy-toy Worsely (Chirstopher James Ash).
Meanwhile, Marion has bought a house inhabited by her old flame Alec (Matt Browning), and his very pregnant wife, Lisa (Abbey Smith). Marion hopes her scheme will entrap Alec in a sexual relationship, for fear of being evicted. But Alec has mysteriously lost all desire for everything. Lisa and Marion can hardly believe he is now tranquil, seemingly at peace with the prospect of losing not only his assets, but his family. Lisa is emotionally volatile, and as a test of Alec’s resolve, Marion persuades her to let her and Clegg have custody of the baby.
The remainder of the play untangles these storylines, but the unifying theme is that the characters generally treat each other as objects to be won and kept, without regard for their well-being. That’s not implied; they outright say so. The metaphor feels heavy-handed to me; not that it’s wrong, but how is the play “asking questions” if it provides its own answers? The program includes notes by the dramaturge for an earlier production at the Yale Repertory Theatre, who links the West, capitalism, and masculinity, and contrasts them with Eastern religion’s supposed rejection of greed. The then-recent concept of a businesswoman apparently caused socialist-feminist Churchill some confusion, resulting in Marion and her inverse, Alec.
But how does it work onstage? Barnard and Browning fight bravely for characters who are more symbols than people. Time has stripped Marion of a lot of her shock value. Barnard carries the ranting monologues about how the next Ghengis Kahn could be a woman well, but her talent really shines through in Marion’s more vulnerable moments. We understand Marion is deeply lonely, but incapable of interacting with other people as equals. Browning’s job is usually to be sedate. But he hints nonverbally that there’s a part of him that is aware he should care about the lives of his children, and deep down, maybe there still is.
The other characters, who do not represent concepts with such dramatic tension, don’t fare as well. The actors speak in thick English accents, which combined with mumbling and rushing, forced me to strain to catch all the dialogue. I still don’t understand Worsely’s self-injuries and possibly insincere suicide attempts. Are supposed to be funny? They never effect Ash’s movements, so are they meant to be fake, or is that an acting/directing problem? Smith shrieks a lot. It’s funny at first, but I wound up wishing Marion would smack her way more often.
The show either had a shoe-string budget or went for the aesthetic of one. The props are ridiculous. Joe Schermoly’s set design uses some clever devices to avoid the need for long black-outs. The wall of Marion’s office reels in and out, and the set moves on a man-powered revolve through flaps which bisect the stage. It’s not without its problems, but I appreciate the effort. Costume designer Noel Huntzinger made a strong choice to drape Marion in red that dominates the room. I enjoyed all the weirdly colored period clothing, but question having it match furniture in rooms the characters did not anticipate being in. The company just doesn’t have the resources to pull off that sort of visual impact.
I got annoyed while watching with both the script and production, but in retrospect, have a greater understanding of what Interrobang is trying to do. This was another time when people not attending the press opening will likely enjoy a cast feeding off a more typical audience. Every actor is making their Interrobang debut. Clearly, this young company is staying loyal to its mission to do issue plays. I disliked the play’s bluntness about complicated ideas, many of which have changed a lot since its debut, and the production was lacking in some respects. But given the play’s philosophy, maybe this is the kind of company that can best perform it. Some people want art that scrambles for resources and puts forth this niche philosophy. This could appeal to them.
Viewed October 9, 2014.
For more information, visit Theatre In Chicago.
At the Athenaeum, 2936 North Southport Ave, Chicago.