Oct 31, 2013
09:13 AMArts & Entertainment
Yale Repertory Theatre's First Play of the 2013-14 season, "Owners," Opens Tonight
Photo © Joan Marcus, 2013
Brenda Meaney makes her Yale Rep debut as Marion in "Owners," playing through Nov. 16.
Ask any dedicated theaterphile which playwright on the contemporary world stage they think is the most influential, and chances are the answer will be Caryl Churchill. That may seem strange, given that the somewhat reclusive Londoner isn’t exactly a household name. Nonetheless, during her 41 years as a professional playwright a number of her works have become staples of regional theater: among them, Cloud Nine (a meditation on the similarities between colonial and sexual oppression in the Britain of the 19th and 20th centuries), A Number (which addresses the issue of human cloning and personal identity) and Far Away (arguably the most compelling dramatization of the adage “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” ever staged). At 75, she’s still going strong—her most recent play, 2012’s Love and Information, will have its U.S. debut next February at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, which has premiered seven of Churchill’s works stateside.
Meanwhile, Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of her first stage play, 1972’s Owners, officially opens tonight. (Prior to its original production Churchill—a 1960 graduate in English literature from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University’s women’s college at the time—wrote a number of dramas for British radio.) Its central character is the thirtysomething Marion who, upon recovery from a nervous breakdown, has reinvented herself as a ruthless real estate speculator intent on making a killing in the flourishing North London market. Her husband, Clegg, a butcher who has just been put out of business by the new supermarket next door, wants Marion dead. Her loyal protégé Worsely, a would-be suicide who can never quite complete the act successfully, is happy to do her dirty work until he gets a better offer. As Marion buys and sells and profits on each deal, she ultimately becomes the agent for a house in which her former lover Alec lives with his pregnant wife, senile mother and two sons. Her strategies to evict them become more and more absurd as the play unfolds.
Theater critic George Hunka has noted that Owners is part of a long tradition in British theater, playing off, as it does, the political and cultural dynamics of community and property ownership. He writes, “The rise of Margaret Thatcher to the Prime Minister’s office was still eight years in the future, but Churchill prophetically examines the ways in which post-capitalist definitions of ownership extend from land to intimate relationships.” In contrast, he asserts that “issues of land ownership, development, gentrification, and tenancy have remained largely absent from American stages,” except in plays that have explored them in the context of race (think Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park or August Wilson’s Radio Golf). In the post-capitalist U.S., definitions of property ownership have also clearly expanded from the simple acquisition of real estate, and the play’s central questions— “In a moral and ethical society, what are the limits of ‘ownership’? Where does our right to ‘buy’ something end?”—seem particularly pertinent in our current era of Citizens United, gerrymandering of voter districts, and continual threats to women’s reproductive rights (fill in your own blanks here).
Of course, all of Churchill’s plays can be interpreted a number of ways, though they’re clearly feminist and politically progressive. (It's appropriate to note here that her mother was a fashion model and her father a political cartoonist.) The playwright herself is conflicted about discussing them, telling The New York Times in a rare 1990 interview, ''I do take a little pleasure in discussing my plays, but it's a dangerous pleasure. I don't want to think too much about myself; I would rather think about the things I'm thinking about. If I have too much of a view of myself, or if I think too much of what other people think of my work, then it can get in my way.'' Regarding Owners, she's reportedly claimed that it was inspired by “recently rereading Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which may have done something to the style,” and "being groggy and torn apart from the effects of a disastrous miscarriage." (Churchill and her husband of 52 years, David Harter, have three sons.) So, "the things she's thinking about" can be decidedly cloudy; her work is often both emotionally direct and verbally elusive, visually stark—her stage directions are minimal—and hallucinatory (one of her few stage directions, in Far Away, calls for a parade of condemned enemies of the state wearing increasingly absurd hats on the way to their executions), darkly funny and searingly tragic.
Some interpretations of Churchill's work have led to bitter controversy: 2009's Seven Jewish Children, a 10-minute play she wrote in response to Israel's military strike on Gaza, still provokes charges of anti-Semitism. (She is a supporter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and has made this play available gratis to anyone who wants to produce it, as long as they run it to raise money for the people of Gaza.) While Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly called the play a blood libel, "the mainstreaming of the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes," playwright Tony Kushner—one of Churchill's greatest fans and a Jewish-American critic of Israeli policy—argued in The Nation that "any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point."
You could say that about any of Churchill's plays, or really, about all plays—no matter what you "think" about them, what counts is what they arouse in your gut. If you see Owners, enjoy the ride—and let your heart do the thinking.
For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.Yale Repertory Theatre's First Play of the 2013-14 season, "Owners," Opens Tonight