Playwright Bryna Turner's Bull in a China Shop doesn't classify as contemporary theater simply due to its briskly paced episodic structure, 85-minute no-intermission length, or the multiplicity of F-bombs dropped within the play's first lines and frequently thereafter. Nor are its two primary themes remarkably new: love makes people all kinds of crazy and most social revolutions aren't sexy one-off victories but instead take decades to create change.
Instead, Bull swings most convincingly into 21st century relevance because it is minus pretense and relieved of heavy didacticism while featuring a queer love relationship between two powerful women. Portrayed without sentimentality and with history used primarily as scaffolding — not grounds for a partisan manifesto — a real-life story of love, courage, achievement, mistakes, messes and miscalculations determines location, chronology, costumes, primary characters, social environment, and basic plot lines. The semi-fictionalized historical content is brought to invigorated life with astute direction by Dawn Monique Williams and the authoritative talents of five Bay Area actors.
Feminist Mary Woolley (Stacy Ross commands the role as if it was written expressly for her) is the newly appointed President of Mount Holyoke College, a position the real-life Woolley occupied from 1901 to 1937. Her life-long partner, Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong unleashes complex, contradictory traits with assurance) is a poet. With a mind to reverse engineer the hallowed seminary into a higher learning liberal arts institution with "teeth," Woolley replaces curriculum — lessons in laundry and mandatory chapel trashed, literature and women's leadership skills elevated — and most radically, she appoints Marks to teach in and eventually head up the English Department.
Dean Welsh (a marvelously convincing Mia Tagano) has the distasteful job of perpetually bringing bad news to Woolley: trustees lose confidence, donations drop, faculty members complain or revolt, "disapproval" of the President's lifestyle grows, especially after the college's wife-making mill grinds to a near halt. Meanwhile — and the show's primary weakness lies here — history "lite" prevails. As the Suffragist movement rides to achieve greater rights for women as if on a carefree up escalator, the serious geopolitics preceding World War II descend with equal speed and inevitability on a down-only but pain-free stairway. If seeking the true rough-and-tumble of women's rights history and the brutalities of Hitler and the Nazis, visit a library or museum. Bull is hooked on history, but ultimately hangs its hat on what it takes to maintain a long-lasting love relationship.
As the two lovers' relationship unravels due to Woolley's inevitable compromises made to keep Holyoke's transformation in gear and Marks' blaming Woolley and her teaching job for writing that has become more "bullshit" than bullish, two hangers-on taint the sour scene. Philosophy professor Felicity (an exuberant Rebecca Schweitzer) bubbles with enthusiasm and the zealotry of a newbie feminist, but in reality aids and abets Marks' eventual infidelity. Pearl (an impressive Jasmine Milan Williams), is a student and "president" of a Woolley-Marks fan club. She brings Marks poorly written couplets, professions of love and diversionary sex when Woolley is traveling on business in China. Later, a spurned Pearl's alternately murderous, romantic, and melodramatic rant (delivered with abandon by Williams in a monologue directed at Marks) lands like a weighted dart; every word is a bull's eye.
The production is greatly enhanced by Nina Ball's ingenious set design. Drawers in a floor-to-ceiling wall bookshelf operate like an arsenal, shooting out a bed for a romp in the hay, swallowing an academic office desk to open the space for a slow dance-and-strip scene, and more. Three brick-sided ottomans mirror the overall Ivy League set design while simultaneously storing props and materials needed for quick on-stage costume changes. Ulises Alcala's clever on-off costumes bear subtle indicators of the military or business world: pinstriped blouses; jackets with padded shoulders; culottes occasionally turning a skirt into near-pants; unadorned hats meant to hold hair in place or add stature; and shades of gray, blue, and brown prevailing. White, magenta, and flesh tones and are pointedly reserved for personal items, like silk robes and lacy or body-hugging lingerie.
Bull's power to speak a story spanning 40 years that is both historical and contemporary is found whenever "pretending" is dropped — often in Turner's humorous asides or most impassioned passages. Woolley's description of two swans observed on a river in China stands out as unforgettable and gorgeously written. It is then that we see women as they are and have always been: people who love and make love, fight and forgive, have ambition, hold resentments, take risks, swear and make false or poetic promises, fall ... and get up again and again to say about themselves as does Marks, "I am a revolution."
Through Dec. 8, $35-70, various times, Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-843-4822, AuroraTheatre.org.