Chicago Theatre Review
To Have and Have Not
Owners – Interrobang Theatre Project
The very prolific, highly influential English playwright Caryl Churchill is known primarily for her exploration and portrayal of strong, liberated women, sexual politics and how abuse of power affects an individual’s universe. Churchill plays out these themes through bizarre characters living in an often surrealistic world communicating through outrageous, theatrical dialogue peppered with non-sequiturs and unorthodox allusions. While her early work was inspired by Brecht’s modernist theatrical techniques, the playwright eventually moved toward a more fragmented, dreamlike narrative which would label her as a postmodernist. While also having written for British television and radio, Churchill’s most significant works for the stage include “Cloud Nine,” “Top Girls,” “The Skriker” and “Serious Money.”
In 1972 Churchill wrote “Owners,” her first stage play, a two-act comic drama that deals with the obsession of power, the haves versus the have nots. Through an absurdist tale that blatantly illustrates Churchill’s socialist views, the playwright depicts a power-hungry, maniacal businesswoman named Marion who’s driven to own the world. Ultimately Ms. Churchill’s commenting on the way capitalists are thought of as pushy and needing to succeed and advance at any cost.
At the top of her game is Marion, an insatiably bloodthirsty entrepreneur who preys upon everyone within sight. Married to a loutish, lowlife butcher named Clegg, he’s continually plotting to murder his wife for many reasons. Marion employs her suicidal flunky, Worsely, to buy Alec and his pregnant wife Lisa out of their home. When that’s not enough to satisfy her gluttony, Marion sets out to steal Lisa’s newborn baby. The woman may be rich and own lots of possessions, but one thing she doesn’t have is someone who loves her. In Marion’s drive to own the world, she sleeps with everyone, including her henchman Worsely and, newly on her radar, Lisa’s passive husband, Alec.The play finally builds to a fiercely shrill climax leaving audiences unsettled and wondering how many of their friends and associates might secretly be a Marion.
Director Jeffry Stanton leads his six actors through this quagmire of relationships, complications and shocking events with skill and preposterous precision. Stanton has a real eye for these kinds of madcap, manic theatrics. Staged upon a versatile, revolving set by scenic designer Joe Schermoly, a veritable carousel of set pieces magically appear and vanish through a carwash-like curtain. The play is awash with Christopher M. LaPorte’s delightful, whimsical sound design, as well as Clare Chrzan’s crisp illumination. Problems arise, however, from the theatre’s acoustics (or lack thereof). The room is so live that portions of LaPorte’s soundtrack and, especially, certain actors’ incomprehensible English dialects sound shrill and almost impossible to understand.
Brynne Barnard is an absolute dominatrix as Marion. She’s half Queen of Hearts and half Grendel’s mother, with a dash of Veruca Salt thrown in for good measure. No one would find this aggressive, power monger lovable and that’s kind of the world that Ms. Barnard has created for her character. Matt Browning’s calm, contented, go-with-the-flow Alec is an excellent foil to Marion. Sarah Gise gives Mrs. Allerton a brisk, tasteful characterization, while making the most of her cameo as Alec’s Mum. Matt Castellvi does pretty well as brutish butcher Clegg, but he’s sometimes hard to understand. Christopher James Ash as Worsely and Abbey Smith’s Lisa, however, are the most difficult to grasp. Ms. Smith’s high-pitched sobbing and wailing combined with a thick dialect, is as frustrating as Mr. Ash’s excessive accent and vocal gymnastics, most of which make his dialogue unfortunately unintelligible.
A rare presentation of Caryl Churchill’s earliest theatrical work is cause to warrant a visit to Interrobang’s latest offering. Talented direction and superb technical support combined with some excellent acting bring life to this modern-day fable of greed and possession. As if Grimm’s “The Fisherman and His Wife” were set in today’s London, this play offers strong female characters, an involving plot and a look at how easily the abuse of power can hurt others. When audiences are able to understand what every actor is saying, they will enjoy an exciting, seldom-produced presentation of the playwright’s early talent.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 2-November 2 by Interrobang Theatre Project at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Athenaeum Theatre box office, by calling 773-935-6875 or by going to www.athenaeumtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.