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Theater review: Bull in a China Shop examines lesbian affairs from a century ago

Bull in a China Shop
Photograph: Jenny Anderson

★★★★☆
Don’t expect prissy circumlocutions from this four-decade (1899-1937) saga of a real-life “Boston Marriage.” Right off the bat, fledgling playwright Bryna Turner has her protagonists—Holyoke president Mary Woolley (Enid Graham) and English professor Jeannette Marks (Ruibo Qian)—spouting distinctly contemporary expletives. The “fucks” fly long before corsets start coming undone.

With a light hand and welcome irreverence, Turner neatly dispenses with two hoary shibboleths: that history is perforce dry, and feminists unfunny. In swift, fluid scenes—artfully accommodated by Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, which conceals an amber-lit boudoir behind a presidential office overpowered by a pattern of red cabbage roses (surely an echo of “The Yellow Wallpaper”)—Turner limns the power issues that can persist, heteronormatively, in a relationship of presumed equals.

When Woolley awaits the right political moment to take up the Suffragist banner, Marks has good reason to label her erstwhile mentor an opportunist. Whether she’s wise to retaliate with a protégée of her own is dicier; but it does afford worshipful acolyte Pearl (Michele Selene Ang) a chance to spew the breakup breakdown rant of all time, at once heartbreaking and hilarious.

Also delectable is a flashback scene in which Woolley (she adamantly shuns “Miss,” though she might have appreciated “Ms.”) recounts for Marks her romantic history, including a memorable first time, and the follow-up. Not only does Turner prove she has the requisite touch, the cast—supplemented by Crystal Lucas-Perry as a mordant peer, and Lizbeth Mackay as the voice of the old guard—delivers fine performances all around: They do the sisterhood proud.

Claire Tow Theater (Off Broadway). By Bryna Turner. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission. Through March 26. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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