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SF Chronicle, Wednesday, September 14, 2005


You're all mine -- as is your property

-- Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic


The speculator is so driven she runs roughshod over the line between owning property and people. Her husband, the butcher, wants nothing so much as to kill the wife he can't control -- unless it's to slaughter any man she's sleeping with. Which might mean her former lover, whose wife she's betrayed and whose apartment she's bought -- along with their baby. Or it might mean her almost equally ruthless assistant, a man who's failed at suicide so often he's beginning to suspect he has "a life wish."

A female monster like Marion -- "Why shouldn't I be Genghis Khan? Empires only come by killing," she proclaims -- isn't the first thing one would expect from an avowedly feminist socialist playwright. With Caryl Churchill, one should always expect the unexpected, which is one of the qualities that has made her among the most exciting playwrights in the English language for more than three decades. As the Shotgun Players' very welcome "Owners" makes clear, such originality has been present in Churchill's work from the start, along with a wicked sense of humor and an exhilarating knack for delving beneath the surface of the issues she raises.

"Owners" is penetrating, provocative and shockingly hilarious at almost every twist and turn of its continuously surprising plot. It's a comic deconstruction of common business practices -- such as evicting tenants to enhance the value of real estate transactions -- that probes beyond the injustices of "free" enterprise to wrestle with the Calvinist work ethic, the ownership of life and other forms of morality. Skillfully directed by Shotgun Artistic Director Patrick Dooley, and featuring a dynamically engaging, beguilingly evil Trish Mulholland as Marion, it's an almost nonstop delight.

It's also quite possibly the local premiere of what's generally regarded as Churchill's first play. So far as I know, the British writer's first play staged here was "Vinegar Tom" in 1979, by the old Eureka Theatre -- which went on to have major hits with her "Cloud Nine" and "Top Girls" (as Berkeley Rep did later with "Serious Money" and "Mad Forest"). Too many of her earlier and more recent works still await their first outings in the Bay Area (American Conservatory Theater will offer her riveting recent "A Number" in the spring).

"Owners" wasn't the first play Churchill wrote ("more like the 20th," she's said). She'd had plays produced at college in the late '50s, and several radio plays broadcast in the '60s. But "Owners" was her first professionally produced stage play, and it made London sit up and take notice when it premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in '72. With its inspired use of the outrageous dark comic forms of Joe Orton (she's cited "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" as a major influence), it's easy to see why.

The brilliantly convoluted plot centers on Marion's efforts to control people the way she buys and sells buildings, but it's also not nearly so simple as that. Churchill cleverly sidles into the theme in short, crisp, vigorously written scenes. She sets us up to be sympathetic to Marion before we meet her, as the object of the murderous musings of her sanctimoniously sexist butcher husband Clegg (Howard Dillon) and the unstinting admiration of her assistant Worsley (Ryan O'Donnell).

Then we see Worsley at work on her behalf, in the just burglarized flat of an understandably distraught and very pregnant Lisa (Zehra Berkman) and her otherworldly passive husband Alec (John Mercer). Quick to take advantage of the situation, Worsley tries to get them to move out with offers of cash incentives and not-so-subtle threats (we may have to "take out the stairs for a time"). The next thing we know, Marion is putting the make on her former lover Alec, Lisa is in labor, a baby changes hands and things get even more complicated.

Scenes shift rapidly from one location to another -- butcher shop, flat, strip club, hospital room -- as fluidly staged by Dooley on a revolving platform. Most of Jean-François Revon's mini-sets are cleverly realized (Marion's photo-realist office is inspired), though the false-proscenium frame has an unpromisingly amateurish look.

The acting is uneven as well. Dillon is an appropriately solidly bourgeoise butcher, but fails to invest Clegg's sexist credos, murderous musings and curious moralisms with enough depth to make his potential menace as comic or threatening as it could be. Mercer hasn't quite found the inner truth of Alec's Zen detachment, though his vacant stare and blurted statements are often hilarious.

Berkman's hapless Lisa is an ever-more fulfilling delight, though, ricocheting from distraught to hysterical to desperate and confusedly determined with engaging unpredictability. O'Donnell plays cagily comic variations on Worsley's endless suicide attempts (with the help of Christine Crook's apt costumes) and eager schemes. Meghan Kane has a nice turn as a chirpy neighbor brimming with affluent entitlement.

Mulholland raises the comic and dramatic energy with her every appearance. She's a supremely self-satisfied, peremptory and predatory little dynamo as she launches her plans. Her comic timing and exasperated grimaces are as ruthlessly executed as Marion's business deals. She's even more fearsomely funny as Marion grows increasingly frustrated over what she can and cannot have.

This is farce as fiercely thought-provoking as it is comic. Churchill doesn't preach or even pose possible answers for the questions she raises. At the heart of its plentiful humor, though, "Owners" puts all forms of ownership on trial.

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