Review: Diversionary’s ‘Bull in a China Shop’ a bracing look at history through modern lens


Right from the start, “Bull in a China Shop” makes it clear that if this is a period piece, it’s one that comes with an exclamation point. (Not to mention plenty of &%@#’s.)

At Diversionary Theatre, the very first scene of Bryna Turner’s fast-and-furious play has the pious strains of a church choir giving way to some searing rock ’n’ roll — a suitable soundtrack to this story of two mavericks who helped shake up society and make history.

Although Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks — the college educators and longtime romantic companions at the center of the work — were in their heyday some 100 years ago, Diversionary’s production and Turner’s writing both emphasize the here-and-now-itude of the couple’s story.

And as the work makes abundantly clear, the two did champion a whole lot of laudably modern ideas about women’s rights and sexual freedom.

At Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where Woolley was longtime president and Marks the eventual head of the English department, they not only fought for progressive ideas and innovations but lived more or less openly as a lesbian couple, at a time when staying in the closet was very much the default.

As a somewhat wary Marks (Tamara McMillian) says to Woolley (Jo Anne Glover) early in the play: “You want a revolution!”

To which the supremely confident Woolley replies: “I am the revolution.”

Director Kim Strassburger’s sharply acted San Diego premiere of “Bull in a China Shop,” a work that landed off-Broadway last year, gets full impact out of Turner’s lacerating wit and the play’s sometimes profanity-laced banter.

But at length (although this is a pretty abbreviated show — about 80 minutes with no intermission), the well-chosen rock-music cues between scenes and the sometimes self-consciously contemporary dialogue can feel as though they’re selling the present-day connections a little harder than is necessary.

The way the play is structured as a series of mostly short scenes also sets up a staccato rhythm that can make it hard to probe character deeply or get into a sense of flow.

Those truncated scenes, though, often provide stirring showcases for the work of the production’s five strong actors.

As Woolley, Glover — a Diversionary returnee, Moxie Theatre co-founder and leading light among San Diego actors — mixes raw passion with a canny sense of knowing how to play the academic game.

That’s a good contrast to Marks, whom McMillian — a relative newcomer with memorable turns in Intrepid Theatre’s “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3” and other shows — gives a more volcanic, impetuous vibe.

Those two get top-level support from the versatile Milena (Sellers) Phillips as the college’s compassionate but exasperated Dean Welsh; Maybelle Covington as Marks’ friend, roommate and fellow faculty member Felicity; and Andréa Agosto as the excitable student Pearl, head of the couple’s Holyoke fan club, who’s particularly devoted to Marks.

One of the show’s best moments comes when Agosto delivers a comically unhinged monologue that has the jilted Pearl yelling at Marks’ window: “I want to drown you in my tears! Violently!”

Ron Logan’s set plays cleverly off the staid columns of academia, whose looks are transformed by Curtis Mueller’s dynamic lighting; TJ Fucella’s sound design is stuffed with ear-catching song excerpts (including Cupid’s winsome “The Big Moon” and acoustic covers of Bowie and Springsteen), and Beth Connelly’s costumes speak to both period and personality.

It should go without saying that Woolley and Marks didn’t see all their dreams for women’s equality achieved in their lifetimes.

“Too much revolution, I guess,” says Woolley, after Holyoke replaces her with a “family man” as president.

To which Marks replies: “Or not enough.”

‘Bull in a China Shop’

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 14.

Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights.

Tickets: $15-$55

Phone: (619) 220-0097


Twitter: @jimhebert