Wily, white-haired heroine Mary Woolley (Stacy Ross) stood poised center stage, opening the night with the declaration “I’m a bull in a china shop” and setting the tone for the play of the same name put on by the Aurora Theatre Company.
Woolley is one of the five strong women who populate playwright Bryna Turner’s “Bull in a China Shop.” The story spans the four decades (1900-1937) Woolley spent as president of Mount Holyoke College. Before this, Woolley taught at Wellesley College, where she started a relationship with then-student Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), who later went to Mount Holyoke with Woolley and became an English professor there.
This is the history “Bull in a China Shop” presents, though calling it a historical drama erases the essence of a play abounding with modern language and brazen comedy. When lovestruck student Pearl (Jasmine Milan Williams) chases after Marks and says she “ships” Marks and Woolley, it’s a bit kitsch — as is the nature of anachronisms in historical retellings — but it’s still impossible not to smile at the admittedly cute moment.
And it’s also appropriate, as in this reimagining of Woolley and Marks’ legacy as a lesbian power couple of academia, “zero f—s” are given, but many more than that are uttered. Audiences can expect a litany of f-bombs to be dropped at any given moment.
Woolley and Marks are exclusively referred to by their last names, a show of respect to the women who reached high positions of power during their careers and a resistance of gender norms. This also grants them a level of androgyny that balances out their conventionally feminine and mostly period-appropriate costumes. Although feminism is inevitably present in “Bull in a China Shop,” the play doesn’t pretend to be an exploration of femininity. Instead, it’s an exploration of two extraordinary women who happened to be political; they aren’t just vehicles for an overarching political message.
This is the ingenuity of “Bull in a China Shop”: It’s a good, funny, grand, gay ol’ time. It wasn’t an easy time to be a woman, let alone a queer woman, and so rather than a physical villain, this oppression serves as the antagonist. But it is invisible and abstract, the narrative thereby granting full agency to its female characters by allowing them to be at the helm. They’re not lying around in woe over the struggles of being women; rather, they are always in action.
In the course of 90 minutes, life goes on — and life is funny, heart-wrenching and sometimes even sexy. Woolley and Marks get their hands on each other more than once, and the intimate structure of the Aurora Theatre Company inevitably results in the audience getting an up-close and personal view: It’s a small venue, with seating arranged in an almost complete circle around a platformless stage.
Against a minimalist set, it is the acting that earns one’s full attention. Luckily, among the five actresses who make up the play’s entire cast, there isn’t a single weak link — each one grants a unique life to her character that meshes well with that of the others.
In this production, Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano) stands out as an understated presence, however, with her firm pragmatism and necessary traditionalism frequently pitted against Woolley and Marks’ more radical declarations. The restrained grace of Tagano’s performance is a true delight to experience, and while she is often the one delivering messages from invisible antagonists, her evident world-weariness gives away how she’s just as tired of a woman as Woolley and Marks are.
“Bull in a China Shop” isn’t didactic, despite its historical origins. But it doesn’t put up any pretenses about being educational, instead flying its quirky, anachronistic flags high with pride. By virtue of blowing a thick layer of dust off important and oft-forgotten pages of history, yes, it is political by default. By design, though, it is fast-paced, lighthearted and hits all the marks.