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Oakland Tribune, September 13, 2005


Social satire stings in Shotgun Players' 'Owners'

-- By Chad Jones, STAFF WRITER


CALL A PLAY "Owners" and you might just as well call it "Pretty Much Every Person on Earth."

In her sassy, sneery play "Owners," British playwright Caryl Churchill takes aim at the very notion of want. Anything we truly want, we want to own in some way, whether it's paying for it, signing papers of ownership on it or enfolding it into our spiritual, emotional or intellectual consumption.

Capitalism, Churchill seems to be saying, is based on the whole notion of wanting and owning. You want it, I make it, so we can come to some kind of agreement. But that system is as flawed as the people who practice it.

Thank goodness, because flaws make for good comedy, and that's what "Owners" is as produced by Berkeley's Shotgun Players.

One of the best and most consistently exciting playwrights in the Western hemisphere, Churchill is slow to produce. In recent years we've seen her "Cloud Nine" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and "Top Girls" from Crowded Fire Theatre Company. Later this season, American Conservatory Theater is doing her latest work, "A Number."

So it is with gratitude that we greet Churchill's 1972 "Owners," her first professionally produced play.

Not yet in peak form, Churchill still shows a masterful sense of blending the absurd with the incisive, the depressing with the hilarious.

If, toward the end of the play, she borrows from the work of Joe Orton, at least she has the wisdom to lift from someone who shared (and perhaps inspired) her bleak, dark and very smart sense of humor.

Director Patrick Dooley and his actors are all in tune with Churchill's aggressive, wordy comedy of class and socialist satire.

But Trish Mulholland, a Shotgun regular, is positively inspired as Marion, a hugely successful London landlord and property manager whose skill at owning other people's homes is rivaled only by her appetite for more, more, more.

Outfitted in Christine Crook's groovy '70s designs, Mulholland rampages through the play with wisecracks, keen observations and nonstop lustful greed. She stomps all over her husband, Clegg (a marvelously low-class Howard Dillon), a butcher who thinks that women are best when they're pregnant, weeping and entirely submissive.

Just such a woman exists in the form of Lisa (Zehra Berkman), a mother-to-be whose building was just purchased by Marion. Rather than suffer an untimely eviction along with her milquetoast husband, Alec (John Mercer), their two children and Alec's nearly comatose mother (Marilyn Stanley), Lisa fights back.

The problem is that Lisa and Marion have some history. Apparently Lisa's husband had a fling with Marion some years ago, and Marion has never quite forgotten him.

If opposites attract, that explains why Marion and Alec were ever together. She is everything a good capitalist should be: smart, self-involved, emotionally invulnerable and unapologetically merciless.

Alec, on the other hand, can barely be bothered to breathe. He's a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who finds himself caught up in a storm of screaming chaos.

As a comic farce, "Owners" can be shrill to the point of annoying, but Dooley and his cast — which also includes Meghan Kane in supporting roles and Ryan O'Donnell as Marion's suicidal assistant — are quick to underscore the play's intelligence.

Jean-Francois Revon's terrific revolving set keeps the pace lively, though Churchill's later economy of language would have served her well in keeping the two-hour-and-20-minute "Owners" leaner. As for meaner, Churchill did just fine.

The play leaves a residue of guilt that makes you wish the human race could evolve toward enlightenment just a little more quickly and with fewer bumps and bruises.

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